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A Metaphor for a Worldwide Paradigm Shift
Creating Learning Organizations Through Core Competence in Community Building
Softstuff: Work Teams in Technical Organizations
From Chaos to Community at Work
Discovering a Generative Path to Organizational Change
Dialogue and Organizational Transformation
The Wisdom Council
Rediscovering the Circle: Community in Balance
A Sense of the Whole: The Essence of Community
The Quest for Collective Intelligence
Principles for Sustainability
My Journey Toward Hope

Principles for Sustainability

by Robert A. Mang

This document is a revised version of the chapter
"Principles for Sustainability"
in the anthology "Community Building: Renewing Spirit and Learning in Business", New Leaders Press, 1995.
Please do not quote without the permission.

I needed to get out of the mindstuff that took me upward... I needed to get down to Earth... Later I would understand that magic lives in the ordinary world, in the details of our everyday lives. It is in those simple moments that we can really appreciate the magic of this world. When Buddha realized enlightenment, he touched the Earth. This gesture connected him to the world, it made him the world's relation. I needed to "touch the Earth."

-- Joan Halifax, The Fruitful Darkness

Community is an act of Will -- not individual willpower, but a collective or higher order Will. It requires commitment to engage in a dynamic natural process that enables coalescence of diversity toward a common purpose. A sustainable community is life giving for generations. It includes people and place engaged in value-adding, reciprocal relationships. It evolves in harmony with changing demands on its internal and external environments. It can range in size from neighborhood to village, city, or region, depending on the capacity of its people to remember their purpose as a community and to be conscious of their impact on others in their universe.

A society passes laws and uses law enforcement in an attempt to maintain internal order. Community is different. Its order is derived from internalized principles that guide its behavior. The development of principles is fundamental to our becoming able to be conscious and to manifest effective and sustainable order. The more we are able to expand our capacity for consciousness, the more diversity and complexity we are able to coalesce into community and thereby evolve into higher order value.

These ideas describe a real community that, today, embraces a city of 1.5 million people. The city is Curitiba, capital of Parana, Brazil. A very brief story illustrates the importance of committing to a place, the potential realized from coalescing diversity toward a common purpose, and adhering to the principle of working for reciprocal, value-adding relationships.


Curitiba and Its Beggars in Community

When Jaime Lerner became mayor of Curitiba in 1973, he and a small team of serious, dedicated citizens and planning professionals had already spent years developing a vision and a set of comprehensive principles for changing Curitiba from a typically corrupt, poor Latin American city, being overrun by immigrants from the interior, into an inspiring community. Their success is reflected in the fact that Curitiba has since become widely known as "The Ecological City."

One of the first acts of the city's new leadership was to create a major out door pedestrian mall to rejuvenate Curitiba's downtown. Not surprisingly, the city's numerous beggars also found the mall a pleasant place, much to the dismay of the merchants and to the detriment of their businesses. In our current juridified society, the solution to this problem is normally "pass a law to prohibit begging." Then we spend a great deal of money on police monitoring, court time, and jail space to enforce the new law.

Curitiba's leadership responded in a profoundly different way. It did not start by viewing the presence of beggars as a separate "problem to be solved." Their principle was &quo;teverybody counts for potential value." They worked to rejuvenate the whole of a community. The last thing they wanted was to pour any of their precious resources into an effort that would alienate a large, dispossessed segment of the population from taking responsibility for improving the city. Instead, they focused on realizing the potential of everyone in their community. They saw "the problem of beggars" as a symptom of a deeper systemic lesion that needed a network of mutually reinforcing programs to heal. Each program entailed fewer costs than conventional approaches, but had ramifications on multiple levels. The principles they employed might be summarized as: Don't alienate. Create! Create new, value-adding relationships, among very different people and between people and place, that are reciprocally maintaining.

The story began, not with the question of what Curitiba should do to eliminate beggars from the mall, but with what the beggars could do for the city. A recycling program had been set up to address litter and waste disposal concerns. It was working well in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, but the lack of streets in the favelas shanty towns which were home to many of the beggars, made them impassable to the heavy recycling trucks. The city offered to pay favela residents for bringing recyclable materials to central collection points. So successful was the program that former beggars and their families were soon fanning out throughout the city collecting litter.

The beggars were paid, not in money, but in food coupons or tokens on the new public transportation system. The food coupons were redeemable at local farmer's markets, set up by the city to support the small truck farmers struggling to make a living on the outskirts of the city. The transit coupons were used to transport them to jobs that were previously inaccessible to them.

The results of the whole effort to eliminate beggars on the mall were manifold. Benefits included a net financial gain to the city from the sale of the recycled waste and a food-generating program that cost less than enforcing an anti begging law and fed the entire population of poor people. There were also new found skills for job seekers, mobility for poor people on the new transit system, new local transit products for export, new jobs for unemployed, and an attractive and successful pedestrian mall that now extends for forty-nine blocks with no beggars.

Curitiba transformed itself from a blighted, sprawling, corrupt city into a life-giving, sustainable community. It used reciprocal maintenance as a standard to test every proposal. This is only a part of the Curitiba story, but it is sufficient to illustrate the order and value that come from the commitment to creating a sustainable community. It demonstrates what can be accomplished by consciously developing a dear, common purpose; by developing and using these principles instead of juridifying the process; and by seeing the potential value of coalescing diversity into value-adding relationships. The new spirit created among its people is still palpable and inestimable a decade later.


Elsewhere, Community is Crumbling

Over the course of the past decade, I participated in a difficult and inspiring process with a group of San Francisco Bay Area business, environmental, and civic leaders aimed toward developing a comprehensive, nine-county regional planning system. Simultaneously, I made my living as an infill real estate developer and later as an organization development consultant. Currently, I chair the World Business Academy Sustainable Economy Project.

From these different perspectives and experiences, I have learned a great deal about community and its absence and have concluded that much of the increasing social alienation and ongoing deterioration of our natural environment would not be occurring had we not lost our commitment to community. Passing more laws and spending unprecedented sums of money on law enforcement, environmental cleanup, and more infrastructure -- including very expensive health, education, transportation, waste disposal, and flood control systems, all born of noble intent -- have not been very effective. Notwithstanding these prodigious expenditures and efforts, our society and environment continue to deteriorate at what now appears to be an accelerating rate. Our systems are falling apart because, in our rush to achieve great affluence and knowledge, we have lost our connection to the earth and sun on which we totally depend, and we have become flabby in our ability to stay committed to value-adding, reciprocal relationships with each other and to all of life.



The first step toward reversing this randomness that stresses our sense of life is to develop a shared purpose in our shared place, a collective sense of what is significant and must be sustained. A community's purpose can be as primal as survival and protection, as intermediate as self-development, and as transcendent as service to a greater good beyond itself. Depending on how many levels of added value the community's purpose embraces and integrates, a community is less or more whole and sustainable.

Nature teaches us that natural communities integrate three levels of value -- the nature of an entity, its proximate environment, and its universe -- into a common purpose. A community's nature deals with the survival and fulfillment of a single species. For example, the wolf is a predator of the caribou.

Its environment reveals a reciprocal nurturing among diverse species, often including transcendent service that further develops and enriches the common, immediate environment. The relationship between the wolf and the caribou enable each to maintain its population at a level appropriate to the environment they share.

Its universe encompasses the universe of a species, which the species also impacts and contributes to, through ages of time. This level enables an evolution of the ecosystem's organizational value to the whole. The wolf, caribou, trees, soil, rivers, fish and other species cooperate to sustain a natural community that nourishes a fishing village hundreds of miles downstream and continues to evolve to a higher order of value in its universe.

This is depicted graphically in Figure 1. The graphic was adapted from a concept developed by Charles G. Krone.

Purpose of Community

Figure 1. Purpose of Community


Community as Place

Any community becomes sustainable when it is integral to its ecosystem and serves all of these three levels of value. The ecosystem defines the boundaries that serve as a reference point for defining the community's proximate environment and its universe. Every creature within this eco-community plays a role, but humans carry the added burden of choice: to be consciously committed to the ongoing process of community in that place or not.

It is important to understand that identity, so vital to an enduring community, springs from a common agreement about boundaries. Most of the villages and cities that have endured and contributed to the qualities of our civilization, from Florence to Kyoto to San Francisco to ancient Baghdad, were formed by natural boundaries. In the absence of natural boundaries, Curitiba, London and numerous other cities in Europe, Portland in the United States, and Damascus in Asia Minor have deliberately bounded themselves by greenbelts to manage sprawl and maintain the proximity of their people on a human scale. Contrast the quality of life in those bounded cities with Los Angeles, Sao Paulo and Tokyo where there are no conscious boundaries.

Boundaries enable pride of place for the qualities they contain. They provide the crucible that requires us to deal with the messes we create, rather than dismiss them by moving away. By being conscious of our identity, we have much more control over our own destiny. As we center on our own place and identity and become less dependent on products from remote places, we are less likely to be victims of some far away faceless demand that depletes our natural resources and burdens us with debt. Nor are our consumption patterns as likely to make us unconscious victimizers of others whom we shall never meet. Community in place enables us to self-organize and self-regulate the impact our human desires have on others, on our surroundings, and on our progeny.

Much has been written and demonstrated through workshops and retreats about community as a spiritual experience. Such an experience, while inspiring and true in the moment, is not sustainable unless it connects us consciously to our impact on a place through time. Furthermore, it tends to support the currently held assumption that community can be mobile. In fact, there is ample evidence that the human species is not yet conscious and integrated enough to be a "mobile community." Modern corporations, constantly changing the places of their employees, owners, and production, or "electronic communities" that share no place outside the mind, are not, and cannot be, sustainable communities. Both create bonds in different forms -- one as an organization, the other as a network. Both bonds are undeniably valuable, but because they are not connected to place or nonhuman nature, they tap into only a part of our whole being and, if taken as a substitute for sustainable community, they ultimately destroy it.


Impact of Contemporary Business on Sustainable Community

Most of the United States and large portions of other industrial nations and the developing world are becoming, at an increasing rate, dysfunctional non-communities. A large part of this, I believe, is directly related to the dominant impact modern business and technology have had on the rapidly changing structure of our values, our thinking, and our relationships.

There is a subtle, but strong relationship between the imperative of the short-term, bottom-line nature of current business practices and the breakdown of community. To succeed today, corporate executives believe they must make drastic physical changes in their businesses -- uprooting and relocating key employees or whole factories, merging or selling entire companies, changing management, moving headquarters, downsizing, or expanding. Each is based on "good business reasons" and further reinforced by the encouragement of the finance system. The fact that all of these decisions are commonly being made by many corporations continuously has had an untold deteriorating impact on our human commitment to sustain community in almost every part of the globe.

When we are able to step back and look at the growing evidence, we see fairly clearly that our expanding world economic system has become value depleting rather than value adding, in spite of the fact that we deeply wish it otherwise. Places where people live and work, their surroundings, and even some global ecosystems that all our lives depend on are in decline, largely because of the dominating and pervasive impact of our collective business activity -- the very activity on which most of us depend for our livelihoods. At the same time, it is clear that because it is so adaptive and pervasive worldwide, business is the singular institution on this planet that has the potential to turn this regrettable situation around.


The Sacred and Profane

As businesspeople, it is time to stop denying our relationship with the sacred -- the natural environment from which our wealth springs -- and the profane -- our cities which we have allowed to fester to gangrenous proportions at our peril. Business is faced with a choice of radical and painful restructuring imposed by the pressures and increasing costs of the failure of community or transformation into a different, more healthy form that integrates with and nurtures community. We must recognize that we are caught in a system driven compulsively by finance, growth, and litigation that, like a well developed cancer, is rapidly separating us as whole persons from being able to pursue a common, harmonious, sustainable life. Once we can see that, we can then begin to reorder the economy, governance, our systems of technology, culture and the ecosystem into an appropriate system that regenerates community, and thereby begins to reverse the entropy we now find so overwhelming.

The steamroller of the late 20th Century post-industrial political economy has become more powerful than our vision and ability to bring our human activity into balance with the dynamic forces of nature -- human and nonhuman. Returning to community is a more effective, less costly way to deal with our current situation than what we are currently doing, both in business and in government. Business has both a large responsibility and much at stake in this profound effort.


Framework and Principles for a Sustainable Community

Given the complexity involved in restoring community, and all the changes such an effort would portend for our current systems, the big question facing all of us is How to even begin to think together about it?

During the course of negotiating differences and forging consensus toward a Bay Area regional planning system, the various parties discovered, after we began to know and talk to each other as individual people, that we shared a hierarchy of values about the relative importance of different systems of life in the region. Once we saw this, it made reconciling our different agendas much easier. Everyone agreed that maintaining a healthy economy was essential. Also obvious was the view that an economy wouldn't be very healthy if the ecosystem died. So, all agreed, the ecosystem was more essential than the economy. It was not a question of either one or the other. The economy was still essential. It just wasn't the most fundamental system from which to build our collective picture about how all the elements fit together.

Because the effort was limited to a land-use planning system, our informal model dealt only with place. Since then, I have developed it into a more comprehensive framework as a way to provide a structure for thinking together about building a sustainable community. It is depicted graphically (see Figure 2) and described below along with some principles at each system level. The principles should be thought of as providing a step-translation from the abstraction of values toward the development of a collective vision about how a particular sustainable community would look. Community principles are also valuable to remember as touchstones in reasoning and dialogue, and as mentors in the community's decision making.

Framework for Building Community

Figure 2. Framework for Building Community


Sustainable Community Emerges from an Ecosystem

The ecosystem, a living community itself, is the dynamic foundation upon which all else rests and from which every other element of a sustainable community is built. Within its boundaries, a host of diverse organisms and matter at a variety of levels interact, forming increasingly complex interdependencies and interrelationships between and among each other. Each organism contributes to others in some life-nourishing way and, in doing so, adds value beyond the ecosystem to its universe. The ecosystem, nourished with light from the sun, offers the potential for reversing entropic processes. No known life form, including human, exists without it.

Eco is derived from the ancient Greek word for house or household. Thus, an ecosystem is the "household system" that enables a sustainable community to be "home."

Principles for guiding a sustainable community's behavior related to its ecosystem include:

  • A sustainable community understands the nourishing interdependencies and interrelationships within its ecosystem.

  • It continuously maintains consciousness of the impact its human activities have on the health and evolution of the ecosystem.

  • The boundaries of a sustainable community are its ecosystem; the human habitat is seen only as a meaningful and significant part of the community.


Sustainable Culture Emerges from the Ecosystem

Rooted in, developing from, and nourished by the fertile ground of the community's ecosystem, culture is the invisible womb that holds the human community together at its core. Through generations, it nurtures continuity of the human life unique to a particular community. It gives rhythm to our life and significance to our being part of a community. The language and music of meaning; the motion, feeling and tastes of rituals; the vision and textures of sacred symbols; and the wisdom and odor of taboos form the dimensions of culture.

The depth of the values and beliefs of a community's culture shapes how well a community reconciles adversity and appreciates the richness of diversity within it. The quality and consciousness of a community's culture profoundly influences whether our social conventions and relationships -- gender, family, education, business, justice, religions -- will work or not.

Principles for guiding a sustainable community related to its culture include:

  • The culture imbues a sustainable community with a sacred sense of its uniqueness, its connection to its place, and its continuing value-adding relationship within its universe.

  • A sustainable community is able to see the potential in diversity and develop the capability to harmonize itself in the aim of becoming something new and valuable.

  • The culture of a sustainable community drives its members to seek the essential quality of their activities in order to recognize and eliminate waste -- physical, energy and social -- by transforming it into higher value "food" for development.


Sustainable Economy Invites Reciprocal Value Adding

Economy , from its Greek origin, means managing the household. The economy of a sustainable community requires a dynamic balancing of reciprocal, value-adding transactions between the culture and its ecosystem. Managing the household includes guiding the transformation of matter and energy from the ecosystem into products and services that enable the culture to enhance, uplift, and sustain the community. It also includes responsibility for nourishing (giving food back to) the community's ecosystem through time. The market system can be the medium for managing the household if it serves the values of the whole community -- ecosystem and culture. The ecosystem, when managed appropriately, yields bounty. The culture, when guided by reciprocal, value-adding transformations and transactions, connects us to our Source. The role of the economy is to manage and guide accordingly, to manifest well-being.

The notion of managing the market system by an "invisible hand" had authenticity the way Adam Smith conceived it. But the "invisible hand" has since been amputated from its body -- the values and well-being of the community it was supposed to serve. Smith's view is in stark contrast to the current "economics of growth," where earth and its communities are being drained to fuel economic activity.

The economy of nature offers an instructive and different model. Nature is constantly transforming waste into nourishment for a succession of higher order beings. With intention, business can work similarly with regard to higher order community.

Some principles for guiding an economy of a sustainable community include:

  • Transactions and product transformations in a sustainable economy are reciprocally maintaining and value adding.

  • To the extent a community extracts and uses the ecosystem's yield, it returns greater enrichment to its source in the ecosystem. (For example, the soil becomes richer from growing and harvesting food through permaculture, in contrast to our current agro-industry practices that deplete the soil.)

  • An economy of a sustainable community nurtures the further development of the community's human capability to serve -- now and beyond our life time.

  • A sustainable community economy looks for creative ways to replace its reliance on importation of products.

Import replacement is fundamental to the creation of wealth and healthy sustainable &quo;tcities," as Jane Jacobs persuasively demonstrates in her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations . By continually developing its own capability to produce products that replace a region's dependency on imports, a regional community and its component businesses build a stronger and more sustainable economy and a more stable social and political structure.


Infrastructure Systems Support Function and Develop Assets

Infrastructure is an inclusive term for all of a community's physical and social support systems. Communications, transportation, land use, utilities, health, education, market and finance systems enable a community to function well and to further develop its assets. In a sustainable community each system is designed to meet needs and manifest the value of the economy, culture, and the ecosystem. The economy couldn't manage the household if there were no infrastructure.

When traffic congestion begins to overwhelm our streets, instead of automatically deciding to build a new freeway, a sustainable community would ask, "What systems failures are contributing to the congestion?" The city of Portland asked that in the late 1970s. Instead of simply building a new freeway to connect and accommodate further urban flight, Portland's civic, environmental, and business interests got together on a community infrastructure plan. The result, fifteen years later, is a highly developed sense of community in one of the most attractive and vital downtown urban centers in the United States.

Principles for infrastructure in sustainable community include:

  • Education, communications, transportation, finance, and other support systems are designed to increase potential and manifest value for the whole of the community.

  • A sustainable community views its problems systematically and designs its infrastructure proactively.


Governance to Create Sustainable Order

Finally, we discover the relative value of governance. Unlike the institution of government that imposes an order on society based on an adversarial process where everyone looks out for him or herself and comes up with the lowest common denominator agreement, governance in a sustainable community is a derivative, self-organizing process. Governance engages a community, through formal and informal interactions about long-term planning, decision making, and man aging the community's relationships.

Self-organizing is the way of the natural order. It is not, however, a conscious process for most historical human societies, and it is certainly not the model we are familiar with today. Yet it is present in real communities, of which there are still many. It requires greater capability than is currently our standard of attainment in our unsustainable society. The ethic, resources, and systems to sup port and develop this higher level of capability in its people are imbedded in the sustainable community's culture, economy and infrastructure. In return, governance, in pursuit of common purpose, serves the other systems.

Principles for governance in a sustainable community include:

  • Governance in a sustainable community relies on self-organizing and aspires to achieve social and economic order in a way that is non-juridical.

  • A sustainable community develops its information media in a way that is engaging and enlightening, rather than passively entertaining and demoralizing.

  • A sustainable community nurtures and supports its governance process through development of its people toward capability to

  • interact thoughtfully and compassionately toward value-adding agreements and order.

  • create and maintain reciprocal relationships, and

  • sustain commitment to freedom to create higher forms of service for the common purpose.


Is the Vision Possible?

"To touch the Earth." This is only the beginning of a vision of how we can begin to reverse the accelerating deterioration in our natural and social systems by creating regional sustainable communities in the 21st Century. The whole vision has to be created by all of us. A very big order, it calls for a caring commitment over extended time, against well-entrenched inertia. Nonetheless, it is difficult to envision a more worthy endeavor.

by Robert A. Mang

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