Simple Sustainability

University of Wisconsin – Green Bay Professor Larry Smith, who specializes in courses on Sustainable Development and the Economics of Sustainability, is a firm believer in a simple approach to educating people on “green” practices.

“A lot of people are worried about the environment and what they can do, but don’t know where to begin or get bogged down in the terminology,” Smith says. Paul Wosniak, a former student of Smith’s from more than 35 years ago who happened to be in his office at the time of the interview, agrees, saying, “Most people have known about different sustainable practices for awhile. They just hadn’t realized that what they may have been doing have been helping the movement all along.”

Nasewaupee resident and UW-Green Bay professor Larry Smith teaches sustainable development.

In defining “sustainable development,” Smith uses the definition set forth by the Bruntland Commission, convened by the United Nations in 1983. The commission was created to address the growing concern about the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources, and the consequences of that deterioration for both economic and social development. The UN realized that these problems were global in scale and determined that it was in the interest of all nations to establish policies for sustainable development. The Bruntland Commission released a report entitled “Our Common Future” in 1987, in which it defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

“It’s a fairly simple concept,” Smith says. “There are now 6.7 thousand million people on the planet. Some people who are reading this article will live in an era where there will be nine or ten thousand million. All of us are going to have to work together in order for there to be sustainability. Not physically together, obviously, but all of us are going to have to acknowledge and honor each other’s existence.”

Even in a place as small as Door County, Smith and Wosniak say one can feel the impact.

“There are many groups and individuals in Wisconsin, and Door County, that are preparing for this teamwork,” Wosniak says.

Smith, a town of Nasewaupee resident, agrees.

“Door County has long been a place of refuge, even throughout its early history,” Smith says. “People have been trying to preserve this place in one way or another for a long time.”

Smith gives many examples of the lengths people are taking to be sustainable in Door County.

“Small local businesses buying goods made in the United States for their merchandise; the recent revived interest in local food, and eating food that’s been grown or raised close to home; the efforts to bring The Natural Step to Door County [The Natural Step is a framework for sustainability created in 1989, following the publication of the Bruntland Report]; the fact that the origins of wind power in Wisconsin occurred right on the Door and Kewaunee County borders – all of these things are wonderful examples of how the county is practicing sustainable development,” Smith says. “I believe that communities will need to plug into the sun or the wind in order to be sustainable, and Door County is at the forefront of that thinking in a lot of ways.”

Of course, with the positive strides come some worrisome elements for Door County’s sustainability. For Smith, the biggest concern is the pattern of land use and shoreline development on the peninsula. He co-authored a paper on the topic entitled “Sowing and Tending Seeds of Change in a Field of Stone” in 2000. The paper has been presented at many conferences, including the International Association of Great Lakes Research Conference in 2001.

“The development as we mostly do it today concerns me, because it represents a disregard for the biodiversity that we should be celebrating,” Smith says. “Door County is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet for its latitude, and we have more state parks and miles of shoreline than any county in the United States.”

Smith credits institutions such as the Door County Green Fund, the Door County Land Trust, the Ridges, Crossroads at Big Creek, the Clearing, the Sustain Door group, and the Door County Economic Development Council for all of their hard work in saving the peninsula’s shoreline and green spaces.

Smith also says that the kind of creativity being applied to preserving natural productivity also can be applied to other aspects of Door County living.

“There’s a strong culture of people who work tirelessly to save old buildings and recycle them into something that is useful for modern living” he says. “And some people are taking it one step further by constructing houses out of straw bales, Door County’s greatest asset – stone, and wood that has been saved from deconstructed buildings.” Smith himself has a barn full of pieces of an old barn that he’s “waiting to build something with.”

More creative wastewater systems and transportation systems are needed as well, and Smith credits the Door County Economic Development Corporation for researching better ways to treat wastewater other than the usual mound or septic system. Wozniak says there are many efforts in Wisconsin to understand and implement sustainable transportation systems, on both the entrepreneurial and commercial fronts.

“The complaint I almost always hear when it comes to sustainable practices is that people think they’re too expensive to implement,” Smith says. “But if sustainability looks like it’s not economically feasible, that means there’s a flaw in our accounting systems. Our pricing systems need to be changed to reflect ecological realities. Almost everything that gets accomplished in a first phase is expensive. When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the late sixties, I used an early university-level computer to do my research. That computer cost about a million dollars. Now, computers are much more affordable and powerful. People have handheld devices with more memory than the 1960s million-dollar machines. Solar and geothermal energy will follow the same kind of cost path as it becomes more widely used and mass produced.”

For Smith, sustainable development is not something to “buy” into – “it’s simply something to live.”