Small-Scale Sustainable Communities: The Key to the Next Social (R)evolution

This article marks the first in the author’s series on Sustainable Communities, in which she investigates theories and examples of how we might organize ourselves toward sustainability.  This introductory article examines why it is crucial to focus on the viability of sustainable community prototypes, the likes of which are popping up in both urban and rural settings across the world.  Such efforts look humble and localized at first, but they may contribute more to the structural evolution of a global sustainable society than it seems.

flowerFrom a humble sprout, a fragile orchid grows.  Not all of the seeds of its parent plant were pollinated.  Not all were strewn, and not all began to grow.  Some did.  Of those that did, one blossomed.  The orchid blossomed, a realized vision of the parent orchid’s design.

Not all efforts toward organizing ourselves for a better future have blossomed.  Communism fell to the stresses of maintaining an absolutist ideology among many individuals.  At this moment in our very own country, capitalism is finally beginning to buckle beneath its own design oversights (infinite growth within a finite planet).  If one examines the human political legacy, it seems that there never will be a final, best solution to our social woes.

But there may be an evolution.

Totalitarianism is better than a monarchy.  Representative democracy is an improvement over a totalitarian society.  Direct democracy is probably even better than representative democracy.  Having civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights satisfied feels much better than widespread injustice.  The only exception here may be class stratification in the U.S., which is apparently justified by the fundamental theory of our economic system.

But maybe capitalism is on its way out too.  New Scientist magazine features in its October 18 2008 issue a section of a half-dozen contributors, entitled “The Folly of Growth: How to stop the economy killing the planet“–which contains a thorough picture of the frankly unpalatable situation we’re in, and yet how appealing alternatives to U.S. capitalism seem.  Tim Jackson’s article “Why Politicians Dare Not Limit Economic Growth” speculates about the social worth of pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into floundering corporations when social trends and urgent environmental trends indicate that the money would be best spent otherwise–such as on the sincere development of green jobs or industry standards and incentives to proactively bring our greenhouse gas emissions within manageable levels (the famous “350” movement).  According to a chart in Bill McKibben’s article “The Most Important Number on Earth” (Mother Jones, November 2008), it would take just $33 billion to update our major energy providers, reducing our carbon emissions by almost 20% annually.  “Just $33 billion” is not a phrase I would have imagined myself saying, prior to the Wall Street bailout. 

Government seems intent on doing everything it can–with its cash, clout or military–to keep things “status quo” for the elite class of wealthy and smart businesspeople.  Businesspeople, of course, are also in the business of protecting their interests–which is why you are bombarded with commercials for razors, flat screen TVs and diamond necklaces this holiday season, instead of what Herman Daly “says is the most critical message we need to spread if we are to stem our environmental catastrophe: “consume less.”

If we cannot rely on governments, nor the corporations which provide our goods, nor even the very system on which we base our livelihood (the exchange of money) to actually provide for either our direct needs or our long-term, ecological needs… then what’s the harm in looking for a better system?

The potential benefits are beginning to outweigh the risks.

I have seen firsthand in my city the amazing potential of small-scale, community-based projects to provide models for a possible global organization that actually affirms rather than denies our current scientific understanding of our dire environmental situation and what steps must be taken.  These “proto-communities” strive to interrupt the harmful systems that our society today perpetuates and replace them with alternatives, all while simultaneously attempting to meet the community’s immediate needs.

I am convinced, based on all of the research I’ve done into how sustainability can be successful, that the most promising field of development is not the top-down technology or the top-down intellectually-designed society–it is the grassroots community efforts to solve the problems we face using the people we have.  The solutions these groups develop, and build upon, may provide the crucial grounds for assembling a sustainable society.  What’s more, the economically-privileged classes in the United States provide the consumer base on which the entire world’s economy expands at the rate it does.  If these folks–if you and I–simply slowed and eventually stopped our money-based consumption and innovated person-to-person, city-to-city alternatives, then automatically, systems that progressively concentrate power (like money) would become devalued… and our livelihoods would be intimately caught up in the success of one another–a design that may change according to needs, but would not self-destruct.

It is apparent that our society as it looks today, cannot go on forever.  We need a redo, a shift, a complete overhaul.  Sooner than later.

The overhaul won’t come from people concerned with maintaining their power and esteem.  It will come from you and me.  More importantly, it will come from us.

I’d like to use this space to highlight some of the remarkable visionaries, innovators, designers and engineers that are laboring on a better future in their garages, their backyards, and their neighborhoods.  You might live down the street from one of them.  And perhaps you might think of a way to plug in your vision with theirs.

Let the evolution begin.

photo credit: Hans Hillewaert under a Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 2.5 license (found on Wikimedia Commons)

Written by carolinesavery

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