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Crash Course

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Antonin Kartochvil

You don't need a weatherman ... : The founders of the 30-year-old Gaviotas experimental settlement in Colombia have proven the viabilty of sustainable communities.

Can sustainable development put the brakes on environmental smash-up?

By Patrick Sullivan

THE LYRICAL SOUND of a woman's voice fills the dark forest. Tentative at first, then swelling to a full-throated tune, the song rises up between the branches as a full moon shines overhead. Soon, an angelic aria echoes throughout one of the strangest places on Earth: a South American forest that stands where once, not very long ago, there were only empty acres of sun-baked plains.

Windmills, solar panels, and, most important, a new way of looking at the world have brought thriving life here to one of the harshest places on the planet. That momentous change has been wrought by the small village of Gaviotas, a unique experimental settlement in Colombia dedicated to the creation of a sustainable environmental future. The opera singer, the forest, the potent little town: All figure in Alan Weisman's magical--but definitely non-fictional--new book, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World (Chelsea Green; $22.95).

More than mere music is being made in this remote corner of the world--a vision of the future is also taking shape. The issue that Gaviotas confronts head-on is a question with which the whole world is grappling: How can the human race survive and prosper in a world of increasingly obvious environmental limits?

Some folks think that Sonoma County could learn some valuable lessons from the Gaviotas experience--and the insights of other sustainable development theorists. The New College of California is bringing Weisman and several other thinkers and writers to its Santa Rosa campus in coming weeks for a series of talks about development and the environment.

But what, exactly, is sustainable development? The term, after all, is on the lips of nearly everyone these days, from Green Party activists to oil company spokespersons. Are they all really speaking the same language? "The term 'sustainability' has been corrupted and co-opted in a lot of ways," says local environmentalist Susan Hancock. "It obviously does not mean the same thing to everyone."

Hancock belongs to an organization called Sustainable Sonoma County, formed recently in response to what Hancock believes are disturbing trends. She deplores the development of wild lands, the endless construction of new roads, the growing problems of water scarcity and pollution.

Most environmentalists know what sustainable development is not. But saying what it is, well, there's the rub. Agreeing on a common vision of our environmental future is tough. Even Hancock says her group is still mulling over their ideas.

One speaker in the New College series believes a consensus about sustainability is more than possible--it's happening right now. Michael Schuman, author of Going Local (Simon & Schuster; $25), thinks something new looms on the American political horizon. Where others see a huge chasm between environmentalists and business leaders, Schuman sees growing agreement on the perils of the global economy.

"I think that gap is being bridged," Schuman says. "And it's being bridged in part by the heads of local chambers of commerce who staked their reputation on going global in the 1980s and who got burned by doing so."

SCHUMAN'S BOOK, bristling with academic references, portrays the emerging global economy as the greatest threat to our environment. In a world where businesses can relocate at the drop of a hat, local communities plagued by environmental problems often find themselves in a bidding war to relax regulations on air pollution and alternative energy.

Schuman documents a grotesque situation in which American cities become locked in competition with some of the poorest countries for factories that provide jobs and a tax base. For instance, northern Mexico swells with low-wage, high-polluting factories while American cities fill up with the working poor, thrown out of decent jobs by mobile international businesses.

"Any effort to raise labor and environmental standards will get you nowhere unless you deal with the question of ownership," Schuman says. "If you look at most prescriptions that are put forward by environmental and labor groups, they only deal with the how of production. They don't deal with who owns the means of production, and that problem is fundamental."

Hmm ... the means of production? In case you're starting to think Schuman might be a Marxist, think again. "We are basically a country that's governed by free enterprise," Schuman says with an air of finality. "And I think free enterprise will either save or destroy this country."

So what's the solution? Going Local argues that communities must establish local control over their businesses and their environment. That doesn't mean government ownership--an idea that makes Schuman nearly shudder with revulsion. It does mean nurturing local entrepreneurs and producing for local consumption. The more firmly a business is based in a community, the more control that community has over the environment.

For an example, Schuman turns to football. As Bay Area fans know quite well, major league teams have enormous clout with local governments. After all, if the team doesn't get what it wants, there is always a more compliant city around the corner. But there is one pro-football team that will never relocate: the Green Bay Packers. Why not? Because, in a unique arrangement, thousands of Green Bay citizens own stock in the team, with no one owning more than 20 shares. So Wisconsin's Packers are in Green Bay to stay.

"You're talking to someone who has never really understood the football mania of this country," Schuman says with a laugh. "But now I'm a Cheesehead, too."

From Green Bay, we turn back to Gaviotas. Local control is the name of the game there also, for Gaviotas is not some utopian project sponsored by U.S. environmentalists or set up by the World Bank. This unique village is actually the brainchild of one of Colombia's most unusual citizens, a man named Paolo Lugari.

The troubled nation of Colombia has a fearsome international reputation. We know it as a place of drugs, violence, and civil war. But somehow, in this seething cauldron, Gaviotas has survived and even prospered. In the 1970s, Lugari had grown tired of working for his government on traditional development projects. He'd fallen in love with the vast landscape of Colombia's eastern savanna. It was a harsh environment, but Lugari saw it as the perfect place to test new ways of living lightly on the earth.

Now, some 30 years later, Gaviotas has brought profound changes to the area. Lugari's scientists and thinkers have invented new wells that bring fresh water from deep beneath the earth using only the power of human hands. They have generated power with innovative windmills that harness even the slightest of tropical breezes. They have built a viable community. And they've done it all, says Weisman, in a way that might seem very odd to suburban Americans.

"One of the strangest things about Gaviotas is that you almost never hear a machine," Weisman says. "Sure, sometimes a vehicle will pass through. But most of the time, what you are hearing are the voices of nature-- the wind, the rain, the birds."

All this was accomplished in large measure because Lugari was able to convince many talented Colombians that Gaviotas was an excellent place to invest their creative energy. University students, scientists, engineers, even opera singers took the long, dangerous trip out to this place and helped discover innovative ways to make human settlement possible with minimal environmental impact.

THE RESULT is an oasis of serenity in one of the most violent places on Earth. Even terrifying visits from soldiers and guerrillas cannot disrupt the peace for long. As the rest of Colombia has descended into hellish violence, Weisman says, Gaviotas has remained a place where little children walk down the street alone at night, without fear.

"My god, where on Earth do you ever see that anymore?" Weisman asks. "Where do you see people so absolutely unafraid?"

So, you might be asking, where do we sign up? Is there any chance of another Gaviotas opening around the corner? Weisman sees no reason why similar communities couldn't exist in Northern California or elsewhere in the United States. In fact, he points to communities like Eco-Village, located near downtown Los Angeles, as examples of other people living out the Gaviotas philosophy.

Convincing governments, however, that they should back the Gaviotas approach has not been easy. But in a world that is coming to question development models that focus on pavement and pesticides, the simple but effective answers provided by this Colombian village look increasingly attractive.

"Is there a better development model out there?" Weisman asks. "I think the answer, provided by Gaviotas, is clearly yes."


The New College series on sustainability issues continues through Monday, June 29. Alan Weisman speaks on Monday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m. Michael Schuman speaks on Monday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m. Other speakers include Helena Norberg-Hodge, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Dan Hamburg, David Heitmiller, and Jacqueline Blix. All talks take place on the New College of California campus, 99 Sixth St., Santa Rosa. Admission is $3-$5. 568-0112.

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From the June 18-24, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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