Faced with the realities of climate change and peak oil, an increasing number of communities around the world are adopting a strategy of relocalization - building a society that is rooted in place. These communities are actively transitioning away from dependence on cheap fossil fuels (and high carbon emissions) toward a future characterized by local production of food, energy, and goods. Some transition communities have been establishing local currencies and community gardens, while others are focusing on the development of renewable energy and natural building projects.
Student working with a shave horse
The success of this movement depends on individuals and local groups having the skills and knowledge necessary to create resilient communities capable of adapting to change. Members of these communities will need to be adept in a wide range of skills — skills that were at one time commonplace but are now greatly undervalued (e.g., food growing, basic repairs, natural building, maintaining renewable energy systems), as well as have the capacity to solve problems in ways that work in harmony with natural systems. Rebuilding community resilience will require self-reliance, creativity, and knowledge of place.
We believe that higher education can and must play a role in this transition to a healthy, sustainable, and desirable future. Colleges and universities, especially those with undergraduate programs focused on the environment, clearly have the opportunity to greatly influence the trajectory and success of the relocalization movement. Yet, as noted environmentalist David Orr has stated, "it is not education, but education of a certain kind, that will save us. "He argues that we need to shift our focus to fostering our students' ecological literacy, which he defines as the knowledge and skills needed for "living well in place."
Drawing by Liz Calabrese
Indeed, the quest for increased self-reliance and resilience is predicated on an intimate knowledge of the ecological potential and cultural heritage of the local landscape. Such an in-depth understanding of a particular place - the flora, fauna, climate, culture, physical features, and ecological processes that make it unique - is fundamental to our ability to design elegant ways of living that promote sustainability and vitality. As Van der Ryn and Cowan explain in their seminal book on the topic: "Ecological design begins with the intimate knowledge of a particular place. Therefore, it is small-scale and direct, responsive to both local conditions and local people. If we are sensitive to the nuances of place, we can inhabit without destroying."