The London Underground is dotted with signs to “Mind The Gap.” The specific reference is to the space between the platform and the trains, urging attention to the inherent dangers of tripping and falling. In the context of navigating the gap between macro and micro initiatives to achieve sustainability, the need is also for negotiating that space between where we are, and where we are going.
Think of the world of this new paradigm in two ways:
First, we are a collection of communities. Each community is original, with its own special problems and solutions, but also connected to and influenced by issues that transcend boundaries. Each community suffers from challenges to its integrity and survival. Success depends both on the will to risk and innovate, and the ability to coordinate existing resources.
Second, there is a vast, global system, blending the needs of human society, often mediating between conflicting priorities. It is made up of sub-systems, each replete with protocols which simplify transactions between elements – except when they don’t.
The rough edges between urbanity and cacophony, freedom and justice, might and right, seniority and meritocracy, variant nation states and cultures, are the gaps that demand our mindfulness. The edges are constantly under repair or modification, subject to review and explanation. To the extent they respond to powerful interests and political pressures, the outcomes are often skewed to the detriment of long-term sustainability.
Softening the edge between community and macro systems, and understanding the space between, is an imperfect discipline requiring both craft and art. Complicating matters, “community” is a word applied to any grouping of common interests: communities of thieves and terrorists, bankers and working girls, professions and politics, folks bound by geography or age or history. Yet the expanded use of the word is an implicit appreciation that “community” implies a bond that transcends the protocols and bureaucratic ramblings of society, and is rooted in the places where we meet.
For all the imaginative and timely solutions that make for a healthy life, place still matters. A strong university attracts creative people, who tend to be enthused about green initiatives. Climate, as In the San Francisco Bay, Seattle and Portland, Oregon helps or hinders. Availability of water for both residential and commercial use can be a huge issue, as in drought areas like the Southwest of the USA or parts of Asia and Africa. Pollution, when it reaches the levels of West Virginia and Kentucky, major cities in China, cesspools like Lagos, restricts life, and poisons solutions.
Creating a world worth sustaining depends on modifying systems that often reflect a short-term perspective, building communities worthy of the name, and negotiating the interface.
Minding or recognizing the gap between community and globalization is something every one of our Exemplars does – mostly with good spirit and articulation. If you consider their starting points and organizational strategy, they clearly are aware of a problem and set out to solve it.
Building a bridge is the next step to minding the gaps. Each of the communities or projects briefly portrayed here has had more than reasonable success in achieving its goals by fashioning tools sufficient to the task. If our goal was simply to address infrastructural failure by building bridges across the gap, we’d be home free: the outcomes are damned impressive.
Visiting the communities and projects, whether virtually or in person, is both enlightening and inspiring. They have combined, in their many ways, the virtues of collaborative process with benign and attractive ventures into the macrocosm. The result is a better life in the present and promise for the future if we could be sure to extrapolate the outcomes.
Scale up and scale down. Humanizing the global, systematizing the local.
There is, however, another level which we might call “transcendence.” If every community turned bright green, if every project and organization declared success, is there a point where the quantitative and qualitative become one? Where the pathways and bike ways could be mapped so that the inequities and frustrations, the tension between individual achievement, community, and macro systems is dissolved? Is the analysis and dissemination of best practices the way to the future? Is building systems which incorporate sustainability and community a matter of tweaking existing structures or beginning anew?
The answer, of course, is both.
BRIDGING THE GAP
From the earliest days of recorded history, we know that power and aggregated resources tended to flow to tribal chieftains and petty kings. We’ve replicated and enhanced that direction via economies of scale and the management of complex technologies. In a capitalist structure, although theoretically ownership through stock can turn the pyramid upside down and democratize the distribution, the reality is concentration of wealth.
For a period in American history, mid-20th century, it seemed to be going the other way, with a rising middle class fueled by rising wages. Radically reducing the tax burden for corporations and wealthy individuals, and gutting the controls that had been established for the financial industry were among the factors leading to a widening of disparities (and eventually to the bursting of several bubbles).
Watching dysfunction is akin to observing a stampede of buffalo headed for an inevitable cliff: it’s only a question of who goes over first. Restricting the advantages of giant financial institutions beyond Dodd/Frank would be a logical next step, but a system that gives power back to community banks, like Van City, credit unions as in Agua Caliente and encourages innovative currencies as in Ithaca or microfinance like the Grameen Bank would be even better. The core of real change may rest with a shift to a more distributive economy, where the creation of value is more easily identified and the mystique of finance dispelled. Taxation of those maximizing short-term value over long-term impact would level the playing field.
Without minimizing the enormity of crafting a tangible reward system for supporting community within a global framework, there are already millions whose choices favor environmentally-friendly goods, fair-traded products and local produce. Long-term benefits of a healthy diet are dispositive for millions more. The big box era of cheap at any cost is a long way from over, but clarity about real costs is growing.
Recently, and with annual modifications, the CERES Coalition developed a “A Roadmap for Sustainability: a Strategic Vision and Practical Framework for Sustainable Corporations in the 21st Century Economy.” A brilliant piece of work, constructed over years of engaging with companies to understand how to make what is necessary probable.
Broadening the scope to bridge the gap between the global marketplace and community involves another order of complexity. What are the major issues with which a redefined, community/global, sustainability system will have to cope? Do the principles we’ve presented and the Exemplars trotted out provide suggestions of how to proceed?
Let’s hypothesize that all the answers we seek are already present in the human condition. More specifically, that from the Exemplars, the content for revising the dysfunctional and unsustainable aspects of a global society can be extracted.
Further, consider the possibility that the processes for revisioning society are also evident: best practices, collaboration, open source information flow, reducing consumption, respect for the environment, a distributive economy, an emphasis on locality, a consensual approach to decision-making.
If we are already engaged with applying our creativity, there will remain the problem of putting it all together. With all the compromises and failures, here is what is within our grasp:
- Education can be about guiding natural curiosity towards creativity; leading to preparation for a fulfilling adulthood, citizenship and productive contribution to society. The vast, open source superstructure of the internet is the best learning environment humans have ever had – if properly managed. From pre-K and early childhood education based on Waldorf and similar models, to university or technical preparation, social and environmental impact are increasingly factored into curricula. The Institute for Services to Education materials and reports are still relevant, extent, and its templates remain a blue print for breaking down barriers of class and race. Post-graduate programs like Bainbridge connect with internships in businesses and organizations that include their sustainability impact in their remit. National Service is a great leveler that prepares for citizenship.
- Health focused on prevention, diet and exercise, monitored and supported by cost-effective community health centers that embrace primary care, with integrated teams covering the range of medical, dental and behavioral health. Hospitals ERs, specialists and testing are properly placed as the valued referrals when necessary, rather than the default of care. Big pharma’s sweetheart deals are restructured.
- Governance takes care of business on a local, community level (Burlington, Portland, Davis, Curitiba) by maintaining respect for the greater good, and modifying the role of special interests into a creative collaboration. On a regional, national, and international level, established systems like the European Union and the United Nations provide at least a substantive forum, with various programs that call attention to problems, negotiate and build bridges. Organizations like CERES, WRI, World Watch, Union of Concerned Scientists have the expertise to craft elegant or at least acceptable solutions. The compact and interface represented by ICLEI’s governing Council, the Global Reporting Initiative’s Stakeholder Council, with democratically elected representatives from communities of interest world-wide, linked to supranational bodies like the EU and the UN offer clues for how to frame a working solution to governance. It probably adds up to more autonomy and resources for smaller jurisdictions which have operational responsibility for livability. At best, there is a partnership between top down and bottom up, as well as between different sectors. A concordance between system, localities, academia, citizen groups and business is how the world already works, even if it is too often overwhelmed by crisis, greed and dramaturgy. Instituting the planning, responsiveness and innovation capable of setting sustainable patterns requires an awakening to potential beyond what is now probable, but at least we have substantially working Exemplars.
- Technology, planning, economic development are guided (GRI) or controlled by the relevant entities (Curitiba) where necessary for the greater good, including tax incentives for valuable R&D, but otherwise left alone.
- Financial institutions have their role in society redefined as a service and support function, rather than the driver (Van City, Investor Network on Climate Risk, Grameen Bank, Calvert Funds, Impact Assets).
- Community as the standard of what knits us together; celebrations and culture that are local and regional, yet all stating the common events of birth and commitment and death. Cities like Burlington, Davis and Portland encourage and support environments which maximize social interaction by emphasizing public transportation, parks and public spaces that are welcoming. Celebrations are frequent. That fits with events like Dance New England and Burning Man which have so much presence, that much of their charisma carries through the whole year, even though they are less than two weeks long. HUBs offer working environments which are as much social in nature, understanding that engagement can leverage creativity.
- Respect for differences and the right of peoples to go their own way made more acceptable by the ability of peoples to practice regional and local sufficiency.
For two years, when I was Chair of GRI’s Stakeholder Council, I participated in discussions between the GRI Board and Staff, and senior representatives of EU governments, seeking wisdom on establishing a balance between voluntary environmental impact reporting and mandated reporting, as well as between reporting guidelines and setting performance standards. Coming from different places, facing different problems, there was a high degree of curiosity, intense listening, and true collaboration. Governance by technocrats and bureaucrats may not seem all that appealing, yet where people with expertise have chosen to involve themselves with professional and activist organizations, there is some evidence they are among the best people to help in negotiating the complexities we face as a civilization.
Organizing change works best when there is a starting point to draw continuity. A nexus to build from like the Impact Hubs can catalyze change far in excess of its raw numbers. An event like the Exxon Valdez spill gathers adherents who turn it into campaigns and new institutional realities like the CERES Coalition. SOCAP sends attendees back into their communities, reinvigorated. An imaginative government program like HCAP gave people in their communities the resources to attract collaborations. Bethesda Green and the Livability Project have a template for focusing the resources and will of communities on a sustainability commons. A sense of Basque identity and brilliant leadership inspires a giant cooperative in Mondragon.
Although the intensity of shared communion is most obvious at festivals, the pleasures of shared work and play in community; the continuity of knowing and caring for people over time is a reward to be cherished. Trust is not given lightly in the global marketplace, when so much is transitory and hype. In community, when it’s working well, it is earned and enjoyed day after day.
IMAGINING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE or WHEN ICARUS LANDED ON A BED OF ROSES
Somewhere in an ecotopian future, a redrawing of the political map occurs. Groupings of city states, each interdependent with agricultural and industrial production areas, are freed from national commitments, but participate in an international covenant. Supranational initiatives regulate trade protocols, balance the relationship of value to standards of living, and issue a global currency. Citizenship is earned by service to the well-being of the world: military, health care, education, construction.
Those cities, nations, tribal groupings which prefer to live outside the established covenant, have that choice, which results in whatever isolation they can maintain in a world where the internet and information flow freely. Emigration across borders remains a great challenge. Environmental controls where the outcomes risk planetary catastrophe are enforced and terrorist incursions discouraged by swift retaliation, but even more by a population that is minimally disaffected.
Contributions to the commonweal are valued. Structures that allow for participation, invention and celebration are encouraged and rewarded. Associations based on neighborhood and shared interests become the puzzle pieces that fit together. The happiness index soars.
ARE WE THERE YET?
The challenges we face are enormous.
Each season, TV and movies, magazines and books bring us a new tide of dystopian extrapolations, founded on the worst fears for human kind. Yet they are new only in the scale of the output: Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” George Orwell’s “1984,” Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” to name a few, provided dire warnings. Neither they nor utopian projections ever turn out quite as predicted, so why should this hodge-podge of green initiatives result in an exoskeleton upon which a new age is framed?
If the old homily, “necessity is the mother of invention,” has any currency, it’s because key elements of what we have called “civilization”, the “economy” and “society” are increasingly failing to deliver.
Necessity is the first driver of a new paradigm. In a time when climate vies with jihad as a risk factor, evidence is massive that the only questions are where and when the next catastrophe will strike, whether the whole system will fail, and what might replace it?
The second driver is that the technology, systems and structures that presently undergird the global economy are generally amoral, ready to be adapted to any purpose. The arbiters of finance and business are way ahead of the politicians, searching for an accommodation with the demons they have raised, ready to back any horse that has a chance to stay the course, and mix any metaphor up to the task.
The third driver is the aggregate of lively and inspirational models begun to be gathered here. Together, they hint at representing a whole that is more than the sum of its parts; a compilation of human creativity and innovation that speaks to a conscious act of faith in a sustainable future.
MAYBE WE CAN
What has been frustrating is how much we know about how to optimize society and human impact on the planet. We figure out all these solutions to life’s persistent problems, and then forget or bastardize them.
The national political system of the USA is stuck in ideological gridlock, and the mantle of leadership is being shopped like a Goodwill cast-off. Even so, leaders are emerging at every level and sector. As these examples demonstrate, the underlying principles of a sustainable society have already emerged and are being put into practice.
The developing model encourages collaboration and innovation. It values creativity, satisfaction and a long-term perspective over strictly financial rewards. It operates as close to the local and shares assets as practical. It seeks excellence instead of competition. It listens more than it talks; insures that the right cohorts are making decisions based on data; respects experience; values intuition. It establishes appropriate firewalls between those nations and peoples who choose to play a different game.
It is intensely practical, evidence-based, results-oriented, but always matching targets against the principles we have articulated. If we’re lucky, it’s the future.
Take it as intention that each of the exemplary communities and organizations presented are building blocks worthy of our study for the contribution they imply. Assembling those blocks in a way that supports a livable society and livable communities will be the work of those who are only now coming into their majority.
Time passes and we do what we can.