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Monday, July 23, 2012

Aurora and sustainability

While we work to be inclusive of all cultures, classes, and people and link our efforts across all three legs of the sustainability stool, events like Aurora reminds us of the power of negative social conditions to reverse all we do.

By Dave Newport

It’s impossible to adequately understand or talk about how awful this summer has been for many unfortunate Colorado victims of fire—and now terror.  The Aurora shootings have ended twelve young lives horribly—and derailed many others permanently. Nothing we can say or write can explain it or understand it. Or feel it.

Reactions include anger, unspeakable grief, survivor guilt—and an abundance of heroism. The stories of bravery and self sacrifice literally in the face of fire continue to inspire. The rest of us are left to search our souls. We are all asking ourselves, “why in Colorado.” Only 13 years and a few miles from Columbine High School, kids who grew up in that massacre’s shadow must see darkness again. Why.

Getting through the next weeks and months and years will be difficult for many—especially those who lost family and friends. But our communities are pulling together—and will grow stronger over time.

Give them strength.

Gainesville's remembrance of their 1990 student murder victims 
I lived in Florida during the serial murder years of Ted Bundy and Danny Rolling. It was horrible. The week of terror Danny Rolling inflicted in my town of Gainesville as he hunted down and killed five students at the University of Florida made me feel, for the first time in my life, a palpable overlay of evil across my community. I felt I could almost touch it. It was awful.

Gainesville got through it but not unscarred.  Having spent years working to build a sustainable community, it was sad to watch the swarm of security lights that went up in the wake of the student murders. More energy consumption, more emissions. Surveillance cameras multiplied as if through a mitosis process designed to eliminate privacy and small town feel while making us all wary of public places and strangers. More cops in more cars cruising the streets taught us the modern definition of safety: heavy heat. We suffered an outbreak of gated “secure” communities ever further from town with all the gridlock, overstressed transportation resources, and urban flight trends they answered.  We turned forests into fortresses so we could “feel safe.”

We have not forgotten these terrible times. To this day, random Gainesville citizens keep a painted reminder of the victims maintained in the middle of town. There is never any graffiti on it; nobody wants to forget. 

In the meantime, crime has fallen. And when crime rates drop, people feel safe enough to move back into denser urban neighborhoods thus creating more sustainable cities. Things even like a robust urban tree canopy help drive crime down, researchers sayBroad based, consistent sustainability efforts themselves deter crime.

Of course, what sustainability offers is proactive crime protection—obviously, nothing helps after the fact. It’s likely impossible to prevent the senseless acts of a few crazy people like Rolling, Bundy, the Columbine kids, and now Aurora suspect James Holmes.

But perhaps through sustainability’s inclusive, thoughtful approach to community development, we can minimize “normal” crime and communities’ reactionary efforts to crimes that impede sustainability.

Turning out lights, putting up PV panels, operating a great recycling program, whatever; all these normal sustainability efforts are overwhelmed and seem trivial when measured against the social impacts of crime. While we work to be inclusive of all cultures, classes, and people and link our sustainability efforts across all three legs of the sustainability stool, events like Aurora reminds us of the power of negative social conditions to reverse all we do.

We talk a lot about integrating the social leg of sustainability into our day-to-day work. Sometimes identifying those social connections is easy, sometimes they are less clear. Unfortunately, crime makes them vivid—and horribly tragic.

Give us strength.



  1. Very moving, Dave. Countries that have made the most progress on moving towards a clean and efficient energy economy are also, by and large, the countries that have the toughest gun control laws and lowest rates of violent crime. The ability to strike a healthier balance between individual rights and the common good seems to be the main connective thread.

  2. Dave, as always, a thoughtful response to a deeply difficult situation. And, a reminder of how critical looking beyond our individual organization or campus's quantitative metrics on our sustainability performance to truly breathe life into our ideals of an inclusive and sustainable community. We need to use our talents to lift the whole community... I think we are realizing the damage even of well meaning fear tactics around environmental catastrophe in perpetuating fear rather than a feeling of hope, purpose and community.

  3. Dave,

    Thanks for sharing your compassionate insights to this tragedy. I was in Burkina Faso, seventh least developed country in the world when I heard about the Aurora massacre. As desperately impoverished as the country is, I cannot think this would be possible there. I wrote a piece just this morning that ineptly tries to evoke the the crazy dichotomies of that place. Assimilating that into a life back in a culture that somehow enables the Aurora type events is difficult at best.

    The 'event' of tragedy gets way more attention than the systemic systems that place millions in daily jeopardy fighting for the mere minimums to survive. Gazing into the eyes of the young ones, who for no fault of their own may never even survive to adulthood, or develop their capabilities is equally tragic. And like the heroes in Colorado, Burkina Faso has many, many who work tirelessly, humnly, and with extraordinary compassion to build a better future for their communities.

    Sustainability as you and I think of it does afford a way forward for all of us. May we successful in inviting others to join us on that road. Be well and keep sharing!!

    all good things,