Think globally, act locally

Sustainability for the future begins with local planning now

Heiber Enlarge photo


“Think globally” means understanding that we are part of a greater whole: our blue planet. “Act locally” means making individual differences in our local community.

As a parent, I desire a positive future for my children and their offspring. Local sustainability is key to that. Native American traditions use the seventh-generation principle to define sustainability: Decisions are guided by consideration of the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come, which means more than 100 years into the future. A more recent definition is: Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Both say essentially the same idea: Take care of our children by planning for their future.

In La Plata County and the Southwest, we have a 700-year-old example of unsustainability. The ancestral Puebloans left because their growing population overstressed a fragile land. This has occurred many times over the course of history when civilizations degraded land or would not adapt to changing conditions. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed describes fascinating examples. Most importantly, Diamond demonstrates that societies can learn and live sustainably when they choose to do so.

Many in La Plata County were taken by surprise when our county commissioners recently shelved both the Comprehensive Plan and the Climate and Energy Action Plan. These were created as vision statements showing possible futures for this county, not as definitive sets of regulations to be enacted. They offered a menu of options, but were discarded in their entireties. Volunteers from our community freely gave thousands of hours in support of both plans. In addition, the cost to the county exceeded $800,000. Those opposing these plans are driven by fears of conspiracies, losing individual freedom, intrusive government and planning in general. They also dislike sustainability. On the other hand, many residents believe that our future depends on collaboration toward common goals and interests to create a more sustainable future for our children.

To appreciate how acting sustainably benefits our local economy, it’s important to understand two key principles: the multiplier effect and leakage. Both are interconnected and mutually beneficial. The multiplier effect measures how many times a dollar turns over in a local community. By shopping locally, each dollar turns over in our communities more often.

A low multiplier of 1.3 is typical for national chain stores, where most of the money leaves a community for corporate needs and profits. Local farming operations, conversely, turn their earned dollars over more than twice, creating jobs for us all. The lesson is that buying the cheapest item at a national chain or supplier does not support local jobs or our community at large.

The second concept is leakage: money leaving our community. Because La Plata Electric Association’s electricity is purchased from Tri-State, $67 million leaves our area each year. Many LPEA members believe that it would be more sustainable to produce electricity locally using our ample sun and wind than to purchase mostly coal-powered electricity from Tri-State. Such programs would leave money in our community, make us more self-sufficient and create local jobs.

Presently, less than 5 percent of our food is grown and sold locally, which demonstrates a total lack of self-sufficiency.

La Plata County residents spend about $129 million per year on food. Increasing that local share to 10 percent would leave $13 million in our economy providing 200 farming or ranching families a gross income of almost $65,000 each if sold directly to the public. An increase to 20 percent would provide $26 million of local income.

Investing locally in one’s own community is a growing movement, thus increasing the multiplier and slowing leakage. Examples are Jerry Zink’s meatpacking plant, micro-breweries, James Ranch, coffee shops, market gardeners and others.

Instead of investing in unknown companies all over the world, could we create a local, revolving loan fund supporting the weatherization of homes or other beneficial projects?

The book Locavesting by Amy Cortese explains these concepts in more detail. Local First, Durango’s buy local campaign, and La Plata County’s Economic Development Alliance are both engaged in increasing the multiplier, while decreasing leakage.

The success of any organization, including government, depends on short- and long-term planning. Some actions have immediate results, while the benefits of land-use planning take longer. Proven planning principles result in a higher quality of life and keep money in our local economy, which has been demonstrated in Durango and many communities across our country and abroad.

Decisions affecting our future should be guided by thinking ahead, like the seventh-generation principle considering the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come.

Shelving the comp plan and the climate plan is not serving our county, especially not our children and grandchildren.

Let us set aside our differences and look for what we have in common with the goal of creating win-win scenarios for a more resilient and sustainable La Plata County.

Werner Heiber is chairman of the Sustainability Alliance of Southwest Colorado (SASCO), and is a board member of Four Corners Office of Resource Efficiency (4CORE). Reach him at