Posted by: chrismaser | September 23, 2009



A Citizen’s Handbook


Chris Maser, Russell Beaton, and Kevin Smith


FOREWORD: As humans, we make choices. Many say this is what distinguishes us from other creatures. With change as a constant, we are continually presented with a great number of choices—and we must choose. The change represented by the divergence of humanity from the rest of the natural world is massive, rapid, and in need of transformation. This book, with its strong focus on the individual and her or his willingness to grow and forge new relationships with herself or himself, others, and her or his community, is a guide for that transformation, which can help create a sense of place where it may not now exist.

Until I moved to the Lake Superior Basin of northern Wisconsin, I did not understand that it is a sense of place that brings people into civic life, with its committees, commissions, and governmental decision-making process. I did not understand that a sense of place starts with the individual. Nor did I fully understand, even after 20 years as a city planner, that communities with this kind of heart are more likely to value planning as a tool of self-determination and therefore are less likely to allow market forces to shape their futures.

I know what market forces do. I live in a former boomtown, a shipping terminal for the natural resources of the area—lumber, ore, granite, and brownstone. When all of this natural wealth had been extracted, when its abundance was exhausted, the company left the “company town.” We are still recovering—four decades later. Fortunately, we are now advancing new ways of thinking and positioning ourselves for a healthier future.

Setting the Stage for Sustainability: A Citizen’s Handbook provides a rich and valuable understanding of how we can nurture a healthier future and cultivate a connection to one another and to the place in which we live. People typically develop a sense of “place” through investments (both material or financial and nonmaterial), such as work, family, groups and organizations of mutual interest, recreation, and so on.

Other kinds of connections are found through such actions as protecting spaces and buildings of historic, cultural, or spiritual value; initiating annual community-wide events; recognizing people and their contributions to the community; and integrating music and the arts into the daily life of the community. But, most importantly, before we can create social/environmental sustainability, we need to learn, understand, and embrace the reasons why so many people feel unrooted and apart in their own communities.

The authors have made many contributions in Setting the Stage for Sustainability: A Citizen’s Handbook. Among them are positive and constructive ways of looking at potential obstacles to building a sustainable community. A major obstacle is citizen apathy, represented by low turnouts of voters and a general decline in participation in civic life, which have led many people to a skeptical if not cynical view of our democracy.

If no one shows up to vote, do we have a democracy? Such cynicism can be just as damaging to the achievement of the democratic ideal as apathy. Like fear, cynicism can paralyze.

Taking a positive view, however, the authors see apathy as “a disguise for a deep hunger to learn within the safety and nurturance of community.” They choose to see this unexpressed power of the citizenry as fuel for change, rather than as waste, disarming the negative interpretation that would validate the cynic.

Maser, Beaton, and Smith say that through positive thinking and the willingness to risk, we can indeed be creative forces in our respective communities and in the world—converting societal waste into fuel or food for microorganisms, dysfunction into function, fear into hope and even excitement about the possibilities lurking in risk. They challenge us to be artists and embrace the full palette of opportunities that are at hand, to design a future, the exact dimensions of which we need to be comfortable not knowing, even as we begin to paint. They advocate making plans but not planning the results, believing that it is both the positive process and trust in the process that will foster the kind of world we all want to have and of which we want to be a part.

Consistent with the principles of sustainability, the authors analyze and describe good and bad institutionalized social patterns in an ecological sense. They emphasize the importance of each component to the whole, in this case the individual person.

If we want to be proponents of biodiversity, we must honor individuals and their unique contributions to the ecosystem of which we are all an inseparable part. We must see these contributions as essential ingredients in the integrity and healthy functioning of the whole. But individuals must value their own contributions as well, something that community, government, organizations, business, and industry can help engender by “empower[ing] individual intelligence and honor[ing] intuition.”

By helping us to see the connection of the individual to the whole, the one to the many, this book stands out as a remarkable tool, as does Sustainable Community Development: Principles and Concepts [by Chris Maser 1997]. Each invites us to begin setting the stage for sustainable communities, ones more in harmony with the rest of the natural world, where understanding and acceptance of the current situation form the first step toward change.

The authors guide us toward an understanding and acceptance of our social failure, particular in the United States, to adapt to the natural landscape in ways that perpetuate life and conserve options for future generations through a thoughtful analysis of our economy, its history, and its evolution. In addition, Maser, Beaton, and Smith help us to see conflict as a natural occurrence, something inherent in any natural system and indeed a path to truth if accepted and used. Basic principles of conflict resolution are set forth, guided by an understanding of conflict as fuel for change.

Above all, the importance of questions is illuminated. “People do not grow by knowing all the answers; they grow by living with the questions and their possibilities.” The message inspires us to value our curiosity, intuition, imagination, and ignorance as essential tools with which to see the possibility of a world lean on rule, steadfast in personal commitment, and filled with the courage to create artful and authentic lives, where all of us are relevant and valued parts of the whole, where we can inspire others toward embracing words like those of Mary Oliver:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Jane M. Silberstein, Washburn, Wisconsin

Ms Silberstein was for 15 years a city planner, first in Santa Barbara, California, and then in Santa Cruz, California. Today she is the U.S. Coordinator for the Lake Superior Binational Forum to protect and restore Lake Superior. In addition, Ms Silberstein continues to work as a consultant in community planning and development in northern Wisconsin.


“The change represented by the divergence of humanity from the rest of the world is rapidly growing, and in need of transformation. Setting the Stage for Sustainable Community Development is a guide for that transformation, which can help to create a sense of ‘place’ where it did not previously exist. This book looks at resolving environmental conflicts through a ‘transformative’ rather than a ‘problem-solving’ approach. The transformative approach emphasizes the capacity of facilitation for personal growth. The text analyzes good and bad institutionalized social patterns in an ecological sense. The authors believe that through positive thinking and the willingness to take risks, we can become creative forces in our communities and in the world.”—Robert M. Wilson Sustainable Manhattan
Manhattan KS, USA.

Setting The Stage For Sustainability:  A Citizen’s Handbook. 1998. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 275 pp.

If you want more information about this book or want to purchase it, visit “BOOKS” on my website.

If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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