Sustainable North State

Sunday morning at Sierra Nevada, as brewery staff bustled about the grounds to put final touches on ChicoFest 2009, a group of 63 early-risers gathered in the Big Room.

A high-powered group it was: county supervisors, city and town councilmembers, university leaders, school and college administrators, jurists, environmentalists, agriculturalists, developers, business owners and an array of other professionals—all intrigued enough by an invitation from Chico State’s Institute for Sustainable Development to wake up and sniff (if not sip) the coffee.

The occasion was a summit on sustainability. It featured an esteemed keynote speaker and a participatory forum, as well as informal discussions before and after; in other words, a lot of talk. Hopefully, there’ll be a lot of action, too. But first things first.

The one guest from out of the area was Christine Ervin, a former White House assistant energy secretary and president of the U.S. Green Building Council, who presented the trajectory she sees the economy taking—namely: “Sustainability will become the way to do business in the future; we can no longer proceed under the illusion that it will be business as usual.”

She didn’t just offer projections; she gave specifics:

• The burgeoning field of biomimicry, as per the Web interface (that is, problem-solving through researching how animals and plants have adapted to their environments, such as self-cleaning walls inspired by geckos’ textured skin).

• A booming start-up that’s harnessed earthworms for processing waste into soil amendments.

• A local trash hauler sorting not only for recyclables but also refurbishables it can sell for reuse.

• California’s pioneering green-building code and embrace of energy-saving materials.

• Off-shore wind turbines whose investors include (of all people) the Queen of England.

Big and small, opportunities abound.

What about here?

That’s where the sunrise summit group comes in. Chico State’s Scott McNall didn’t invite people who just talk; he courted doers, people who get things accomplished when duly inspired.

Sustainability itself was an easy sell. Even the individual who mentioned the overriding need for power-generation (even via nuclear and fossil fuels—gulp!) expressed a preference for biomass or some other clean means.

How to move forward is the trick. Just coming to terms can be a challenge—some people see “sustainability” as just a synonym for “green,” while for others, such as Chico State President Paul Zingg, the concept includes social justice, smart economic growth and a sense of community.

Where to start?

Zingg, echoing a sentiment he expressed in a recent essay (published as a cover story in the CN&R), suggested fostering wide, public dialogue to find common values and priorities. Another attendee, Pia Sevelius of the Butte County Resource Conservation District, recommended setting clear-cut goals. A handful of others stressed the need for education on issues, for outreach.

More talk, yes, but important talk—involving far more than the relative few who happened to gather that Sunday morning.

Still, actions speak louder than words. The CN&R is committed to education and outreach in the realm of sustainability; that’s the impetus for the weekly GreenWays section in the paper and Green Guide online. We’ve offered to provide a forum for the community discussion, which could launch as early as next week. I’ll keep you posted.