Over the course of my consulting work, I came across a request for proposal from a First Nations community that was seeking a firm to draft their Sustainability Charter. This is the type of document that many municipalities are now incorporating into their planning in one way or another, either through their own volition or because it is becoming a prerequisite for accessing grant funds from higher orders of government.
While we have been struggling to learn how to define, think and operate holistically about environment, economy, and the well-being of society, this document began by explaining that the new terminology we are using to describe sustainability is “built into the history and values of our peoples.”
The task, then, was to describe in our modern terms what they already knew, but our civilization clearly did not understand when we arrived on the shores of North America. That everything is connected and that what we do, how we do it and how it impacts others, including future generations, and our environment all matters.
We thought of ourselves as a civilizing force, yet we failed to fully grasp this fundamental wisdom.
Oglala Lakota Chief Luther Standing Bear, who worked tirelessly during the early 1900s to change government policy towards First Nations peoples, states this wisdom profoundly:
From the Great Spirit, there came a great unifying life force that flowed into and through all things—the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals—and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man. Thus all things were kindred, and were brought together…it gave [us] reverence for all life; it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal importance to all.
This was a worldview he described as “sane, natural, and human.”
Today we call it “systems thinking”, like we have discovered something new. In each of the fields associated with local government and community building there are these so-called revelations.
New research today tells us that the well-being of people is influenced by the built environment. Seems we have forgotten that as early as the first century BC the Romans told us that the public square must be well-constructed and maintained to invoke the pride of all and provide a space where communal life is promoted.
New research today tells us that people are wired for healthy connection and that both health and happiness elude us without it. Seems we may have forgotten that the ancient Greeks told us that man is a political and social animal and for this reason, ethics could not be divorced from politics. Every social and political act is an expression of our relationship to each other.
New research today tells us that teams cannot be effective or succeed without trust and psychological safety. Seems we may have forgotten the wisdom of the Yoga Sutras written 1700 years ago: When a gifted team dedicates itself to unselfish trust and combines instinct with boldness and effort, it is ready to climb.
New research today tells us that values-based leadership is the key to effective governance, rejecting decades of post-modernist thought that stripped civic education of discussion of values, character and moral or ethical compass. Seems we may have forgotten the warning of the ancient Athenian lawmaker Solon whose legislative reforms paved the way for democracy: Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath.
We are now reaping what we have sowed. There is a tsunami of pressures on local government—from aging and crumbling infrastructure and climate change to toxic public discourse, mental illness, homelessness and addiction—that are insurmountable without fundamentally changing the way we think and operate.
According to the most recent Canadian Infrastructure Report card, all classes of infrastructure will further deteriorate—including water, sewer, stormwater, roads, bridges, recreation facilities—at the current rates of investment.
Gone are the days when we could budget for new infrastructure without considering the life cycle costs—namely operation, maintenance, renewal, disposal and replacement costs. Given the fact that the average cost of new infrastructure is only 20% of the total life cycle costs it seems remarkably short-sighted and burdensome to future generations to budget or make any decision without such accounting.
This financial pressure is further compounded by the fact that our community building model was predicated on continual economic growth. While this may be the reality for some municipalities, it is not the reality for many more. And where there is economic growth, it is not necessarily, like in days gone by, in the brick and mortar property tax paying operations – rather it is often in the creative economy.
Either way, our communities need to be prepared and resilient to sustain themselves during the widely anticipated global economic slowdown. Billionaire investor and Bridgewater Associates’ Ray Dalio told the world in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year that his “longer-term” fear about the next economic downturn is that the limitations of monetary policy combined with “greater political and social antagonism” will compound challenges and recovery.
Dalio did not define what he means by longer-term, but mention of anything beyond the latest news headline is step in the right direction. A January 2019 BBC report titled The Perils of Short-Termism: Civilization’s Greatest Threat, describes our cultural “inability to look beyond the latest news cycle” as “one of the most dangerous traits of our generation”. The report describes this short-termism as manifesting itself in politics by defining the dominate decision-making time frame as “the term in office”. In corporations it is “the next quarter”.
Ojibwe Chief Sacred Waving Fathers of Burlington Heights, Upper Canada describes, in the mid-1800s, the ways of our civilization in this way: “Their motto seems to be ‘Money, money, get money, get rich, and be a gentleman.' With this sentiment, they fly about in every direction, like a swarm of bees, in search of the treasure that lies so near to their hearts.”
Swarming around does not foster the type of stewardship that is required for sustainable community building. A much wiser and more “sane, rational and human” model of stewardship would be the one espoused in this ancient Greek proverb: Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
This column was originally published in the May 2019 edition of Municipal World magazine.