Research Communications

Communities of Hope 

Geographer Ted Bernard follows the fate of environmentally sustainable communities across America

March 8, 2010

When geographer Ted Bernard co-wrote The Ecology of Hope in 1997, he visited nine communities throughout the United States in search of stories of sustainable resource management. Thirteen years later, Bernard has revisited these sites and recorded each community’s progress. The result is his new book, Hope and Hard Times (New Society, 2010).

“What tied the groups together was the formation of these alternative ways of dealing with problems, which has come to be known since then as collaborative community-based conservation,” Bernard says. When the first book was published, he adds, “Conservation outcomes, while promising, were still unknown.”

Ted Bernard

Upon returning to these disparate communities over the past few years, Bernard, a professor of environmental studies at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, discovered varying degrees of success. For example, in California’s Mattole Valley, former adversaries—environmentalists, loggers, fishers, millworkers, ranchers—have come together to successfully stabilize salmon runs in the watershed. In southeast Ohio’s Monday Creek watershed, much of the technical cleanup of streams polluted by acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines has proven so successful as to have provided a model for cleanup of similar streams throughout the Eastern Coal Lands. Yet it has had no noticeable effect on the serious poverty and declining human population that plague the surrounding area. Other groups, such as residents of Virginia’s eastern shore, where development has occurred at a rapid pace, have retained little or none of the enthusiasm or infrastructure for sustainable development that existed in the mid 1990s.

“Each (case study) has some lessons about how hard this quest for sustainability at the community level is,” Bernard says. Even the word sustainability, as it has gained purchase in the mainstream lexicon, has come to mean different things to different people. “I very much like the idea of sustainability as resilience,” Bernard says, reflecting on what is perhaps the most telling information gleaned from his research. “Sustainability is largely about human-ecological systems being able to withstand the ebbs and flows that are inevitably part of living on this planet and to learn from this experience.”

The framework Bernard has created to describe resilient communities is broken down into two areas: human/social markers and ecological markers. The human/social markers include organizational adaptability and renewal. An example of this ability to adapt and reorganize—to be resilient—is Wisconsin’s Menominee Indian Reservation, where a century of sustainable timber harvesting was threatened by a devastating tornado in 2007. In the end, Bernard writes, the tribe adapted efficiently to this crisis and the forest is more sustainably managed than ever.

Ecological markers of a resilient community include maintaining ecosystem function and setting limits. For example, Maine’s Monhegan Island had to learn to set limits on lobster harvests as well as sewage threatening their inshore waters.

The markers Bernard and his co-author, Jora Young, came up with based on the original case studies turned into “a cluster of benchmarks that we found explanatory at the beginning and that people still make reference to in voicing their experience in these past 10 or 15 years,” he says. These include the importance of collaborative leaders and non-leaders, use of consensus decision making, the ability to attract capital, tenacity, and the importance of celebrating a sense of place and accomplishments along the way.

Bernard says he hopes this book will put a human face on each of these stories of community sustainability efforts, and to showcase the hopeful side of the struggle. “Not one of these stories has come to its last chapter,” he adds. “They’re all still going.”

By Mary Reed

This story will appear in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Perspectives magazine.