Sustainability Policy background information, prepared for Acton Selectmen

By Debra Simes, Jim Snyder-Grant, and a host of commenters from Green Acton

(For Board of Selectmen meeting on 2017-7-24)

Hello Board of Selectmen and other Acton Sustainability Policy allies:

At the July 10 Board of Selectmen meeting, the topic of a town-wide sustainability policy was addressed, but it was too late in the evening to get very far. We’ve prepared some background material for discussions of what sort of sustainability policy you want for the Town of Acton.

Where is the actual draft policy? We decided we would benefit from more feedback from the BoS before preparing and presenting a draft. Some of the content below may ultimately belong in the policy; other parts may belong in a background document or documents; and others may strike you as off-base or not appropriate. We’d like to know about that from you before writing a draft for you to consider.

A lot of this material was abstracted from our July 5 brainstorming session and related emails. The sprawling notes for that are at

These include many fine specific ideas, as well as general statements about a sustainability plan.

Background 1: Environmental emergencies

We are in the middle of multiple and intertwined environmental emergencies:

  1. the shrinking supply of adequate amounts of fresh water suitable for human needs. There’s a local and regional aspect to this crisis, made clear by events around the two Superfund sites and Nagog Pond.
  2. climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions that have grown far beyond the planet’s current ability to absorb them. Impacts include temperature rise, sea-level rise, acidification of oceans (which negatively impacts their functions as homes for marine life and carbon sinks), and increases in extreme weather events.
  3. loss of biodiversity (species die-back and die-off) — the sixth great extinction
  4. environmental toxins accumulation as we both consume and discard materials that can’t be re-used or recycled, and introduction of synthetic compounds that do not biodegrade benignly
  5. human population growth, which amplifies the impacts of all of these

And there are others.

These crises are tied together in many ways, including causes, effects, and strategies:

They all arise from human short-sightedness: acting so as to create some local temporary gain for a small group at the cost of damage to others, including the next generations.

That’s why this work is sometimes called ”sustainability,” to emphasize that our strategies for health, safety, and happiness need to look ahead to make sure we aren’t eclipsing these possibilities for future generations.

They all tend to create negative consequences first and foremost for those that aren’t protected by relative institutional and/or personal power or privilege.

That’s why the policy should include a call for equity, and for considering the most vulnerable as the most important groups to help first.

They are all made worse by a lack of knowledge and insight: understanding and measuring the full flow of energy and materials takes time and effort.  

That’s why the policy should call for measurement, tracking, and modeling, so we can get a better understanding of what impacts our actions and choices are creating.

They all cut through the typical boundaries of human organization into families, cities/towns, states, and countries.

That’s why the policy should include seeking to influence actions beyond the normal locus of Town control.

They all call for investments that pay off in the long run by avoiding increasingly expensive harm.

That’s why the financial analysis that’s necessary for any Town decisions must consider the long-term consequences of action vs. inaction, as well as the indirect costs and benefits to all residents, not only to and for the municipality.

They each impact each other: they are not truly separable problems.

That’s why the next part of background information has some top-level analysis of how causes, effects, and strategies inter-relate in Acton.


Interconnections and points of leverage

  1. Ensuring adequate and clean water for human needs
    1. protecting our water supply from toxins (more at #4)
    2. enacting long-term solutions for removal of toxins already present
    3. securing additional water supply (match supply to demand)
    4. using less water (match demand to supply)
    5. ensuring sufficient water supply to support local agriculture
  2. Dealing with climate change
    1. increasing ability of our soils and forests to absorb carbon (more at #3)
    2. decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions (transition away from fossil fuels, including oil and natural gas, and build fewer new buildings and less new infrastructure that indirectly cause fossil fuel use
    3. preparing Acton’s resilience and adaptivity to deal with what’s coming (climate refugees, drought/flood cycles increasing, energy demands with rising temperatures, et al.)
    4. encouraging regenerative agricultural practices, which sequester carbon
  3. Addressing biodiversity loss
    1. preserving unbuilt land
    2. removing invasive plants that reduce biodiversity
    3. preserving wild habitat and wildlife corridors
    4. addressing climate change (see #2)
  4. Reducing/preventing environmental toxins accumulation
    1. changing local policies to reduce/eliminate toxics production (mostly beyond Town)
    2. changing local policies to reduce use and accumulation of toxic substances
  5. Recognizing that human population growth is a global issue
    1. we have an ethical obligation to accommodate, as best we can, those who wish to join our community
    2. we recognize that those with considerable economic means tend to have a larger ecological (including carbon) footprint than those with modest means

Note: Even at this very general level of detail, the above list is too much for a pithy, effective, and memorable sustainability policy. Specific efforts are launching to study and make recommendations about (a) long-term Acton water supply and (b) reducing our net carbon emissions. We may need similar detailed and comprehensive efforts to plan for the other related environmental challenges. In addition, the next master plan process can help gather and knit these ideas together.

Background Part 2: A brief history of environmental action in Acton in the last 25 years

The people who formed Acton Citizens for Environmental Safety first came together in the late 1980s to deal with the noise and air pollution of idling commuter trains. Then, their attention was refocused by the sudden loss of 40% of the Town’s drinkable water supply, as the extent of the contamination from the WR Grace site became clear. They bird-dogged the entire superfund process, and were key in bringing together the Acton Water District, the Acton Board of Health, and the Selectmen to a common understanding of the threats and how to address them.  

Many of these same people branched out into other environmental activities. This includes the Acton Stream Teams, which surveyed the streams of Acton section by section, and advocated for actions to keep them clean and flowing. ACES helped fund the first Acton Earth Days, and ACES and Stream Team people created exhibits to help explain the need for less-toxic lawn care, water conservation measures, and other actions.

As the climate crisis came into our awareness, an early response came from a group called the Acton Climate Action Team, which helped organize an Energy Fair at the Junior High, and helped provide support for the solar panel installation at Leary Field. ACAT came apart when it fell into the maelstrom of the first failure to pass a Pay As You Throw program at Town Meeting in 2004.

After that, the next wave of activity was started by the Board of Selectmen, who asked a disparate collection of citizens to gather and make recommendations about how the Board should respond to all these environmental problems. That group, which adopted the name Green Acton, came back to the board to recommend the formation of a Town Committee with both School and Municipal representation; this became the Green Advisory Board (GAB). The Green Advisory Board helped lead the charge to make Acton one of the first Green Communities in Massachusetts, which included adopting a tougher building code (the “stretch code”). Green Communities status also meant that Acton became eligible for funding for work that reduced carbon emissions from town and school activities. Working closely with staff, this group has evaluated hundreds of proposals for energy reductions, and successfully applied for funding for the ones that offered the quickest payback or the biggest carbon reductions. Lighting changes, insulation fixes, HVAC upgrades, and solar panels are some of the items that came out of this work.

Another early grant from the work of the GAB funded a part-time energy coordinator for the schools. This, in turn, led to such significant energy and financial savings that the schools made this a permanent position. That position has supported and leveraged a large number of highly successful programs and activities at the schools, including the transformation of trash handling, installation of water-bottle fillers, solar panels on a majority of the school buildings, a successful program to get power-drawing equipment turned off when not in use, and more.

Green Acton has worked on many projects, including: the 2012 Solarize Acton campaign, which brought reduced-rate solar installations to homes and businesses; helping to pass a successful Pay As You Throw program at the 2015 Town Meeting; co-sponsoring Acton Cleanup Day; advocating for the Swap Shop at the Transfer Station and providing most of the initial volunteers; and much more. Recently, Green Acton members have been coming to the Board of Selectmen, seeking to slow down the spread of methane (“natural”) gas infrastructure because of greenhouse gas issues. Green Acton was joined in this effort in 2017 by the newly formed Acton chapter of Mothers Out Front.

The Acton 2020 Comprehensive Community Plan, the updated master plan for the Town of Acton, developed an extensive sustainability inventory, and a long set of implementation ideas. These ideas can be seen here: They were printed out for the July 5 sustainability brainstorming session, and although some ideas are out of date (or already accomplished!), many caught the attention of those at that meeting and made their way onto the brainstorm list. The 2020 effort was also the first time an estimate of the Town’s carbon footprint was made. The pages of the plan that describe that calculation are here:

The most recent wave of environmental action has come from new groups formed in response to changes at the federal level that have put a lot of environmental (and other progressive) programs in jeopardy. These include the Activist Alliance and Indivisible Acton. Together with Mothers Out Front, these groups recently organized to encourage (successfully) the Acton Board of Selectmen to join the Climate Mayors and We Are Still In, in support of ongoing international climate action, and in opposition to U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord.

This summary omits many things, but the point is that Acton citizens have been working with the Town and local schools on environmental issues for quite a while, and together we have accumulated a lot of experience and knowledge. It seems like a fine time to codify this progress into a more formal Sustainability Policy to guide subsequent efforts.

What belongs in a sustainability policy?

We are waiting for feedback from the BoS before drafting a specific policy, but here are some general recommendations:

  • Explain what sustainability means for Acton, and indicate what the policy does (or does not) seek to address. How far can we reach, in response to the daunting rush of environmental crises?
  • Focus on process, and not specifics. Specific initiatives belong in a plan to implement the goals of the policy; they also will change over time. We want a policy that can provide some focus, guidance, and stability over the medium term. One possible model:
    • Have the Town Manager submit a report each year detailing the results of sustainability efforts the Town has taken on. Include in that report a preliminary list of proposed efforts for the upcoming year.
    • Have the Board organize some way for the Board and the public to discuss the report, in order to sharpen the plans for the upcoming year.
    • Provide some overall guidance on what types of efforts are particularly needed.
  • Here’s the questions we asked the BoS at the last meeting:
    • What sort of scope might a sustainability policy include?
    • What is the right level of detail?
    • What is the level of urgency, and why?
    • What is the span of control? Does the policy cover things that the Municipal government can only indirectly influence rather than directly control? What is the Town’s responsibility for advocating for relevant changes at the state & federal level?   

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