Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

The Bumblebee That Changed The World


From Dave Smith
Excerpted from The Natural Step For Communities-
How Cities and Towns Can Change to Sustainable Practices

Övertorneå — the first eco-municipality in Sweden

In the mid-1980s, the little town of Övertorneå (Eu-vehr-tawr’-neh-aw) in northern Sweden received a national prize as the Municipality of the Year. In his speech at the award ceremony, a prominent county official, Councilman Jan-Olof Hedwtröm, compared Övertorneå to a bumblebee. As lore has it, the famous aeronautic engineer Sikorsky hung a sign in his office lobby that reads: “The bumblebee, according to our engineers’ calculations, cannot fly at all, but the bumblebee doesn’t know this and flies.”

This was the regional and national establishment’s view of Övertorneå. Changes were happening in the town outside the envelope of what was then regarded as business-as-usual community development. The municipal government and its larger community had made a commitment to develop in a way that was in harmony with nature. Övertorneå residents and town officials sought a win-win-win relationship betwen humans, society, and nature. Residents and officials were coming to understand that investing in ecological approaches to meet community needs could also bring about an economically positive future. To characterize its transformation, Övertorneå began to call itself an “eco-municipality.”

Övertorneå was discussing and practicing ideas such as mobilizing people, taking a bottom-up approach to community planning, collaborative community development, cooperating across department and industrial sector boundaries, investing in local culture, and taking into account the local informal economy. Such ideas were foreign to conventional Swedish town planning and community development practices at that time. What the regional and national establishments could see, without understanding why, was that these strange ideas evidently produced remarkable results — for example, over 200 new business enterprises producing several hundred jobs in a small town of barely 6,000 inhabitants. These county and national agencies considered new jobs and businesses to be the most important indicators of successful community development.

Övertorneå was located in the Swedish region hardest hit by the 1980 economic recession that brought about a 20 percent regional unemployment rate and subsequent out-migration. Övertorneå’s population dropped 25 percent from its level 30 years earlier. Apathy and lack of trust in the future typified local attitudes. Social experts predicted the region was doomed to die, since no possible solutions were apparent.

In this seemingly hopeless situation, Övertorneå and its municipal government decided to explore what other future scenarios might be possible besides the prevailing bleak view. This decision was the town’s first step toward changing both the perceived negative future and the actual negative conditions of hard economic times and population loss. In the six years following this decision, over 200 new companies in Övertorneå developed and prospered. These new enterprises included organic farms, beekeeping, fish farms, sheep husbandry, and eco-tourism enterprises.

Key to these successes was widespread community participation. The citizens of Övertorneå took on their own community development work to become the town they wanted. Over 600 residents took part in special study circles discussing regional development issues and future possibilities. Out of these study circles emerged village development associations that took charge of the ideas sprouting and gradually taking form. The ecological perspective blossomed in a municipal government investment in biofueled district heating, support for ecological farming such as farmer education and municipal purchasing of organic foods, establishing a “health home” and building an ecovillage to attract new families. Övertorneå’s municipal government and town planner held continual training events and seminars explaining the ecologial perspective to citizens, businesses, farmers, and the other interests in Övertorneå, gradually raising the community’s awareness of the importance of ecology and the environment. New postsecondary education courses, elementary school education, and childcare taught with an eco-perspective started up. Marketing and outreach of this emerging “eco-region” brought about a surge of tourist interest and subsequent birth of new tourist-oriented businesses.

At the same time, local culture was undergoing a renaissance. Revival of the local Finnish minority dialect, establishment of a local theater, and startup of music groups, among others, brought about a cultural revolution in Övertorneå and its region where pessimism transformed into trust in the town’s future, its traditional culture, and its development potential.

The transformation continues to this day. Övertorneå currently has the lowest incidence of sicknesses in Sweden, measured by the proportion of absence of long-term illness, as one example. The community’s good health is considered to be due in large measure to consistent municipal investment that supports public health.

The municipality of Övertorneå has become 100 percent free of fossil fuel use in its municipal operations and is working for community independence from fossil fuel as a heating source by 2010. The town converted all five of its oil-based village heating plants to wood pellet-burning facilities. The town government and many citizens have purchased cars that run on ethanol, a grain-based alcohol, instead of gasoline. Now there are ethanol gas pumps in town. The town has made all public transportation available at no cost.

News of Övertorneå transformation spread throughout the country over the next several years. Inspired in part by Övertorneå small village revitalization, a national rural movement of 3,300 similar village development groups evolved, where hundreds of thousands of village inhabitants began to take part in developing their communities in the direction of a future they wanted.

In the early 1990s, scores of other Swedish cities and towns signed onto the idea of becoming eco-municipalities. At the same time, similar eco-community development was going on in Norway, Denmark, and Finland. Collaborations among these Nordic eco-cities and ecotowns brought about a combined Nordic eco-community presentation at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development… [and] the United Nation’s world guide to local sustainable development urges communities to begin to work in the same manner as Övertorneå… The eco-municipality concept has spread to other countries, such as Japan and New Zealand.

The little bumblebee that couldn’t fly has evidently influenced matters far outside its own boundaries!

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