The term "sustainable community" means different things to different people.

For some, it means adding efficient, low-energy streetlights; for others, it means bringing businesses into the community to support the local economy; while still others would see it as fostering community spirit.

In its broadest sense, a sustainable community is a community that meets (or attempts to meet) the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. When we speak of a local sustainable community, we consider factors like self-sufficiency and resilience.

Let’s begin by looking at how the sustainability of our local communities in rural Minnesota has changed over the last few decades. As late as the 1950s, rural Minnesota communities provided for much of their own basic needs. The majority of residents lived on farms producing a variety of animals, eggs, milk, grains, garden vegetables and fruit.

Some products were sold directly to local grocery stores and thus distributed within the local community. Milk was processed at a local creamery and either bottled or made into butter and sold locally. Animals were sold to local butcher shops where they were slaughtered and the meat sold directly or through local grocery stores.

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Whether people lived on farms or not, many people had gardens and practiced food preservation and many sewed their own clothes. Various food preservation techniques enabled residents to survive the long, cold winter months.

Most people burned wood for heat. Firewood was a readily available renewable resource from our forests here in rural northern Minnesota.

Many small towns had health services, including medical, dental and eye clinics and some small towns, like Pine River, had a hospital. And care was affordable; medical insurance was unnecessary.

There was also a sense of community responsibility that I (Doug) recall particularly within the rural farming community. If a local farmer became ill, neighbors would pitch in and see that the milking, haying and other essential farm tasks were done. This was the unwritten moral code of the rural community and, although one's labor was not rewarded monetarily, it was rewarded with the assurance that neighbors would be there when you needed them.

Today, a community as described above would be heralded as an unusual example of a self-sufficient, resilient and even a sustainable community. Why is that? It’s because our communities here in rural Minnesota and throughout the country have dramatically changed in the last 70 years.

At present, most of the food we purchase in the grocery store or restaurant is not produced locally. In fact, it has been estimated that grocery store products we purchase travel an average of 2,000 miles to get to us. That’s 2,000 miles of diesel fuel or jet fuel to get those Fruit Loops or avocados to our shopping carts.

Additionally, many of us drive 60-80 miles round trip to purchase our groceries and other products from big box stores, consuming large amounts of gasoline in the process. Further, we have minimal reserves of food and other supplies in our homes.

As we discovered with the COVID-19 pandemic, a slight interruption in the supply chain can result in panic buying, hoarding and prolonged shortages of essential supplies.

Another difference is that we presently are dependent on large corporations for our energy needs. This means we have little input and even less control over our electricity, heating and gasoline/diesel supplies. Further, our energy supplies are interdependent. When our electricity quits working, our gas furnace and landline phone also won’t work. A change in oil policy by Russia or Saudi Arabia can dramatically affect our heating costs and the cost of gasoline and, indirectly, the cost of all products transported to us by truck.

Health care is presently available but is expensive. Medical insurance, with high monthly premiums, is essential because, without it, one major illness could result in financial ruin.

Finally, the community bonds that caused neighbor to support neighbor in times of need are weaker. Now we often relegate these duties to seemingly austere and bureaucratic government agencies. That sense of community spirit has changed.

In summary, the last 70 years have seen our rural communities change from relatively self-sufficient communities to communities that are highly dependent on nations and corporations over which we have very little control to provide our basic needs for food, energy, clothing and even health care.

The costs have been high on many levels. Re-establishing local control over some of our basic needs would improve our personal security as well as that of our communities.

In the next column, we will discuss some of the hopeful indications that our local communities are once again beginning to become more sustainable and self-reliant.

(References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged: weiss005@umn.edu)

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.