THE current environmental buzzword - ``sustainability'' - means using resources only at the rate they can be replaced in nature: like cutting forests no faster than they grow, or rotating crops so that soils have a chance to rest and recharge. It seems so logical, if not simple. Logical yes, simple no. For when idealistic buzzwords run into real-world economic buzz saws, the public policy machinery whines and snarls with conflicting interests.

Bearing the costs, all too often, are individuals and communities lacking the political power or business know-how to avoid disaster. It happened to energy towns 10 years ago, and now threatens timber towns in the Pacific Northwest.

It must be something in the clear air above 10,000 feet, but the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado has another good idea: community renewal that encourages economic development based on four principles. 1. Plugging the leaks of dollars out of small towns and rural areas; 2. supporting existing enterprises; 3. encouraging new business startups; and 4. selectively recruiting outside firms that are compatible with local goals.

The Rocky Mountain Institute - the brainchild of Amory and Hunter Lovins - advises more than 150 clients in 30 countries, including utilities, governments, and manufacturers, and RMI takes some credit for the fact that seven times more energy has been gotten from conservation in the United States over the past decade than from new sources.

RMI's economic renewal program takes a similar philosophical line: that prosperity does not have to mean ever-increasing consumption of resources. In other words, there can be sustainable development (more business activity and jobs) without growth (construction of new buildings, roads, and utilities).

There are many examples of how it already is working: By plugging energy leaks, Osage, Iowa, is saving $900 per family each year, which keeps more than $1 million in the local economy. The ``Oregon Marketplace'' program in Eugene links local suppliers with local buyers by identifying products imported from outside the state that could be purchased locally (like prepared airline meals). In its first year, the Oregon program resulted in $2.5 million in new contracts and 100 new jobs for Eugene. And in Colquitt, Ga., 40 women are making and selling Mayhaw berry jelly to specialty shops in 36 states, and sales have been doubling every year.

``What a real free market does is search for efficiencies,'' says Michael Kinsley, director of the institute's economic renewal program. For communities in need, RMI has begun providing do-it-yourself workbooks, training sessions, and workshops based on success stories it has tracked around the country.

Interested communities are not just those in immediate economic trouble. Others want to preserve to the extent possible a quality of life and environment that may be undercut by large numbers of retirees or secondhome buyers moving in. A recent headline in High Country News (the solid and spunky biweekly published in Paonia, Colo.) put that problem starkly: ``West's ailing ski industry turns to all-season mega-resorts: Locals fight to protect rural way of life.''

RMI's program is starting to get the national notice it deserves. A workshop is being presented at the annual conference of the International City Managers' Association this fall. And the Small Business Administration wants to print an extra 5,000 copies of the institute's business opportunities workbooks and casebooks.

``There are tens of thousands of towns in this country that are in trouble,'' says Kinsley, a former county commissioner in Colorado. ``Unless we find them ways to be more self-reliant - to make better use of their resources - they're going to die. Or they're going to do something that's environmentally damaging.''

That observation neatly sums up the point at which environmental activism and corporate America intersect, and where - unfortunately - they both are weakest. The ``timber jobs vs. spotted owl'' battle in Oregon and Washington typifies the zero-sum attitude that prevents creative solutions.

The Rocky Mountain Institute's economic renewal program should be attractive to both sides in such debates. It's a good way to prove that there don't necessarily have to be losers in the new game of sustainability.

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