“Mankind’s material power could make the biosphere uninhabitable and will – if the human population of the globe does not now take prompt and vigorous action to check the pollution and the spoliation that are being inflicted by short-sighted human greed.”
“Only one prediction can be made with certainty. Man, the child of Mother Earth, would not be able to survive the crime of matricide.”
Arnold Toynbee, “Mankind and Mother Earth,” 1973
Compared to the grand sweep of history, prosaic stories of the human race are mostly ignored. Pieter Breughel’s ironic painting of Icarus’ fall, which places the peasant plowing in the foreground, is the exception. The day-to-day of us as social beings, living in communities, is assumed to perpetuate itself. And, indeed, there is a stubborn resilience to community which is critical to understanding a sustainable trajectory for a livable world.
Society can be organized on many principles. In Somalia, tribal and clan relationships are paramount. In theocratic states, like North Korea, revealed truth from an anointed leader is assumed to be absolute. No matter how dystopian the end result, an egalitarian ideal drove the French Revolution, the Khmer Rouge and Karl Marx’s tarnished legacy of communism.
In the global marketplace of the early 21st century, the relevant descriptors derive from a capitalism that has delivered the highest material standard of living in human history, but rests on exploitation of natural resources, control of information, and the sequestering of financial wealth. Progress has been deemed inevitable; power and glory accrue. For those left out, there is the comfort of religion, the lottery, and a seemingly endless stream of entertainments. We dwell in the midst of plenty amid dire predictions of less, living in cycles of boom and bust, our assets menaced by climate risk, terrorist incursions, and bursting bubbles. The daily news that reminds us of bitter feuds fueling wasting wars of attrition has more or less presence, depending on how close we are to the action.
THE EMERGING PARADIGM
In the midst of confusion, this world of ours is filled with potent exemplars of creativity. We gather together to give ourselves blessings. Hope springs anew that we could wrap up the good times and translate into systems that allow us to design a future worth sustaining. It’s possible, perhaps improbable, but what else is worth doing?
The organizing principles for a third millennium rest on trends that are already in place, ten of which are presented here. Some are of such scale and speed that there is a qualitative shift; others are the battered survivors of capitalism’s domination. What they have in common is a yearning for a world where community and productivity; efficiency and democracy; inspiration and systems are mutually enhancing, rather than contradictory.
Let us name them:
Open source access to information: the internet, the world wide web, cell phones and Wikipedia offer a great democratization of knowledge and opinion. Sharing Economy: minimizes consumption and encourages the face-to-face interactions that add up to community. Locality: For all the connection to global systems, the delivery of services and most lives are lived local. Interdependence with the environment: Adapting to energy efficiency and conservation of resources. Best Practices: identifying critical improvements, and urging their dissemination and adaption. Distributive Systems and Appropriate Scale: localized production of energy, food and goods linked to supranational systems renegotiates the meaning of a global economy. Consensus, collaboration and networks: mutually respectful environments and accountability. Redefining Productivity: Productivity linked with creativity, and guided by sustainable criteria related to community is the trifecta for a viable, 21st century economy. Contradictions between open and closed societies: a revised set of compacts between the individual and the state, paralleling that between open societies and closed. A cultural shift towards imagining the future: questioning straight-line projections.
THE MEETING POINT
The world changes when there is a conjunction of historical forces. In our case, it is the failure of key systems and the recognition of risk by those with substantial investment, meeting a growing grass roots practice of community, leveraged by technology and innovation.
The new paradigm emerging is new only in its complexity and applications. The conjunction of technology and scarcity have chewed up and spat out predictive assumptions since the flooding of the Nile raised dynasties and droughts decimated Mesopotamia.
The functioning of every society rests on interlocking assumptions that simplify and tend to control choices: Sharia Law in Muslim traditional cultures; an erratic blend of desperation, corruption and meritocracy in production centers like China and India; a profligate standard of living and glossed over disparities between classes in the wealthy nations.
If our ten trends present opportunities for their implied principles to be applied, their practical application still requires a launch point. Sometimes that is a Eureka moment leading to new possibilities, as when cell and smart phones were introduced. Sometimes it’s a slow build of aggregated understandings, as with the realization that past patterns like apartheid are no longer viable. Always change requires a tool kit to speed implementation and bring to appropriate scale.
What matters is a combination of necessity and commitment – in this paradigm, an overarching vision that rests on principles of sustainability and collaboration. The challenge of creating an alternative world, of course, is that, unlike throwing a stone into a still pond and serenely watching the ripples spread, the forces already in play make it more like a pebble into a churning river.
Consider that every wave crashing on the shore backwashes to meet the next oncoming. For each trend that offers hope, obverse outcomes serve as a prescription to equally likely disaster: Our need for open sourced information drowns us in spam, turns our most private speculations into public embarrassment, opens the way to the nets of trolling hackers. The Arab spring jumps the seasons to a falling winter of sectarian violence. Green washing is a tide rising even faster than the results of melting ice caps.
ONCE UPON A TIME
The Exemplars of a new paradigm, no matter how impressive, only offer a snap-shot of aggregated experience. It is when we introduce time as a dimension that we can fully understand how change happens. In retrospect, the history of change is loaded with brilliant insights, promising innovations and lots of misdirection, redundancy and outright failure. Even when there are substantial successes, there is rarely a clear path to wide adoption.
In the USA of the ‘60s, President Kennedy put forth the Peace Corps as a foreign policy initiative, modeled as an alternative to drafting for the military. Domestically, President Johnson’s War on Poverty built on the depression era Civilian Conservation Corps with Job Corps and VISTA, eventually adding AmeriCorps, Teacher Corps, City Year, Senior Corps. National Service, tuned to the needs of states and localities, with some measure of public/private partnership in absorbing costs, was recognized as valuable to participants, a boon to community, a workforce to maintain and extend physical infrastructure, a value to the whole concept and execution of citizenship, and a cheap contribution to a full employment economy.
As limited interventions, programs continue to limp along. As the significant early-life experience for young adults across our nation, bolstering every aspect of a civil society, dissolving the usual barriers of class and economic status, rebuilding infrastructure, providing apprenticeships and job training, National Service is a very minor player. Why?
There is no good answer, but a slew of bad ones. At the top of the list, there has been a failure of imagination and inability to grasp systemic impact. A sense of connection between all Americans is nurtured by common institutions and shared experience. Without a commonality, society predictably fractures.
Nevertheless, the surviving voluntary services continue to accrue value for the individual, communities and society, and funded national service after high school or college could be instituted with profound impacts.
URBAN PLANNING AND RESTON
In the late ‘60s, the new town of Reston, Virginia was designed to harmoniously mix residential, commercial and public spaces. Located in northern Virginia, Reston was culturally situated between the traditions of the South, and heavily African-American Washington, DC. De facto desegregated, but you wouldn’t know it from the marketing. The staff at the welcome center, the 250 picture slide show, and the newspaper ads were all lily white. It took a vigorous campaign of pre-welcoming, with a cohort of residents greeting prospective homeowners and renters with signs and a rap about Reston as an open community to accomplish change. The corporate owners caved: a full page ad appeared in the Washington Post with a black couple strolling on the piazza; the staff and slide show were integrated. If that presentation appealed to some and discouraged others, the balance didn’t hurt sales, and the African-American percentage of the town population held at around 10%.
Reston has grown into a successful suburban hub, especially now that the Metro directly links the town with DC and soon with Dulles Airport, but the innovative design that spoke a language of civility and environmental consciousness is mostly limited to the original Lake Ann Village. Nor, except for a companion city in nearby Maryland, Columbia, have there been North American developments on its scale.
The reasons are embedded in the quick profits available to speculative real estate development. The long-term benefit of civil and varied communities were a more nuanced sell than McNeighborhoods filled with aspiring McMansions. Government had the resources but not the will to counter sprawl or anticipate and avoid bubbles.
THE CONSUMER COOPERATIVE MOVEMENT
In the 1970s, there was a veritable explosion of local food co-ops, building on the ’60s generation’s new found passion for natural foods, and the energy pouring into local community. The dominant role of capital was countered with valuing labor and consumer participation through cooperatives.
Accessing supplies and learning from each other about how to do a business were common agenda items. Rather than launching a new association, the new wave of food co-ops joined with the older consumer co-op movement, which also included housing, electricity and credit unions.
The Consumer Cooperative Alliance, created in the 1920s out of a first wave of co-op organizing, was thrilled to absorb this new energy, and the summer gatherings of CCA swiftly became the hot destination for the leadership of the new movement, with more than a thousand attending.
By the late ‘70s, it seemed to the participants that the wave was about to challenge old forms of business. The Carter administration and a Democratic congress, with Ralph Nader’s organizational support, developed the National Consumer Cooperative Bank, underwritten to the tune of $300 million to provide financing for expansion and start-ups. The New School for Democratic Management positioned itself as the MBA credentialer of the future. The Employee Ownership movement, supported by new federal legislation for Employee Stock Options (ESOPs) seemed poised to complement the democratization of the US economy. A few prescient companies which had already achieved some scale, and Nationwide Insurance (an old-line cooperative) provided some resources and experience. REI and Group Health were significant and growing cooperatives standing in the wings. Historically, the Roosevelt era initiative to establish rural electric co-ops through the Tennessee Valley Authority, which effectively electrified the South, was a continuing success.
Perhaps the flagship of these new possibilities was Consumer’s United Insurance Company whose founder and President, Jim Gibbons, was the keynote speaker at the inaugural session of the New School for Democratic Management. Jim had built a successful health insurance company, Consumers United, which pioneered unisex rates, fully integrated its workforce by race and gender, and reached a peak of $60 million revenues and 300 staff. As a measure of his commitment to economic democracy, Jim shared ownership with the workers through stock dispersal.
In the ‘80s, Co-op America, on its trajectory to bridging the gap between producers and consumers who shared values of social and environmental responsibility, made its headline offering a health insurance plan from CUIC. The ability to partner with CUIC did play a crucial role in the success of Co-p America, which, as Green America, carries the torch that was passed.
With CUIC, there was an important piece of infrastructure, capable of generating surplus while pursuing a viable business strategy. Its pioneering efforts, however, did not endear CUIC to the rest of the insurance world, and Jim’s outspoken advocacy of causes such as unisex rates, benefits for preventative healthcare, and accepting previous conditions led to a series of punitive measures by the Delaware Insurance Commission which eventually put CUIC out of business.
In the early ‘80s, the pendulum swung back to favor commercial interests through a Reagan administration hell-bent on restoring the free-range ethics of Wall Street and a corporate America.
In the space of a few years, the momentum was stopped. The Bank dropped “consumer”, then “cooperative” from its title, the New School failed to find a permanent footing in academia, stock ownership for employees became a footnote to stock options for managers, and the bustling US economy was headed outwards towards globalization, and inwards to liberating capital and wealth accumulation from any regulation.
Nevertheless, there is a reasonable argument that nothing gets lost. Some institutions survived, new ones like Co-op America, Calvert, Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, the Social Investment Forum, Whole Foods restated some part of the ideals in the ‘80s. If CCA died, there were other gathering points for a new entrepreneurial class through the Social Venture Network and Social Capital conferences. By the turn of the millennium, “green” was the new word, encompassing many of the issues that captivated those at CCA.
HEALTHY COMMUNITIES ACCESS PROJECTS
There is a general appreciation that the US healthcare system is a mess, much of it due to the silos in which it functions. In 2001, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, the Secretary of HHS pushed through a bill creating the “Healthy Communities Access Program” (HCAP). Grants of a million dollars each were awarded to more than one hundred communities which presented credible plans for collaboration between healthcare entities in their cities, towns and rural areas that could promote access for patients, savings for the over-all system, and deliver a new set of best practices to be shared.
Despite the Bush administration’s attempts to crash the program, it quickly earned diversified and bi-partisan support in Congress (every state had HCAPs, creating a built-in constituency). For five years, until the initial authorization ran out, HCAP authored imaginative and successful approaches to collaboration between community health centers, private and specialist practices, pharmacies, hospitals; as well as learnings that flowed between communities.
A Coalition emerged, “Communities Joined in Action” (CJA) which marshalled support, encouraged even more sharing of best practices, and represented the HCAP community. Some of those best practices revised elements of the local systems, others withered with the lack of continued funding. Like so many innovations, much was lost. There seemed to be no ombudsman to say, “Wait a minute, didn’t this program work?” Certainly not a Federal Executive branch so focused on the war it had promoted.
Yet with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, there were incentives for efficiency, some of which would rely on collaborations, and a revived focus on prevention and primary care. The experience of the HCAPs in redefining the significance of Federally Qualified Health Centers is aiding the transition to universally provided care through the Affordable Care Act.
TRAINING FOR URBAN ALTERNATIVES
In New Haven, Connecticut of the ‘70s, a young, eager and relatively privileged subculture in a generation disaffected by the Vietnam War sought to create a more cooperative, egalitarian and just society. Like many towns with major universities, New Haven became a center for both protest and experimentation.
A subculture developed which featured both high ideals and practical applications. Since many participants had young kids, several daycares sprung up, and inevitably alternative schools. Food, shelter, education, services, reduced costs by sharing made money less of an issue. Folks moved in together, and kept creating institutions that met needs, and which together offered a sense of social coherence. Bound together by the rhetoric of cooperation, feminism and social justice, it was the willingness of individuals to pitch in that made institutions real, and the matrix of cross-pollination that created a community.
Music, dancing, gossip, ideas and work created a matrix of experience. People knew each other sharing daycare shifts as parents, hashing out procedures in endless meetings, over meals and running households, dancing at parties, cutting cheese at the co-op. That dimensional quality of relationships blossomed into a community with a core of five or six hundred, but touching the lives of thousands in the area. The New Haven Food Coop itself had 5,000 members, running $5 million annual sales. The Yale-based Women’s Liberation Center helped thousands to appreciate the quandaries of new consciousness. A Community Exchange Cooperative published a monthly journal and calendar of events. It held weekly meetings where group houses prospected for new members, and individuals sought housing. A feminist credit union gained a charter and invested in businesses, non-profits and individuals. An activist troupe, The Street and Children’s Theatre, dramatized society’s contradictions.
In 1974, to the tune of a quarter million dollars, not chump change then, the National Institute of Mental Health bit on a bizarre proposal to document and support this alternative community, as a potentially significant anodyne to urban ills. Not only was there evidence that this complex of institutions made for happier and saner people, but restructuring many of the most basic building blocks of society had economic advantages with the slogan, “xxx for people, not for profit,” and intimations of a sharing economy. To receive the grant, a community board was created, a core administrative staff hired, money dispersed for initiatives that would move the agenda. Links were established with other communities developing similar structures in Austin, Minneapolis, Madison, Washington, DC, Philadelphia and the SF Bay area.
For a decade, an urban community operating through cooperative values built its own infrastructure and flourished. Ideas were invitations to action, and in an era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, there were few dull moments. An ideology that sought a common base of class and economic reality was given substance. Productivity was judged by value to the community. A matrix of institutions was laid across the map of the local environment, and its points of impact became the relevant markers for participants.
Was this the future? If so, it would be delayed by several decades. In the revanchist decade of the ‘80s, the pendulum swung towards Gordon Gekko’s classic line, “Greed, for want of a better word, is good.” Collaborative ventures were about as welcome as concern for the environment – which is to say, gutted whenever possible.
Meanwhile, the Baby Boom generation was growing up, worrying about their kids. For those with college degrees, cashing in for a more traditional future was becoming more attractive. In New Haven, that meant a gradual attrition of numbers and energy applied to the nascent institutions. It didn’t happen all at once, but as each institution – schools, daycares, food co-op, etc. – lost participants, considered closing, the roller coaster began a slow slide backwards. One day, folks woke up and the past was more present than the future.
The values and expression of the New Haven alternative community in the ‘70s modeled much of what a community-minded, environmentally-concerned, social justice-aware generation sought to practice in the early 21st century. Considering that gun-toting avatars of the Wild West are locked in mortal combat with the inheritors of Sharia Law, there’s an argument for what goes around, comes around. Who can be sure which cultural context will rise, like the phoenix, from the ashes of irrelevance?
THIRTEEN COLLEGE CURRICULUM PROJECT
In the late 1960s, with opportunities for higher education opening for black youth, the black leadership that had developed Upward Bound and other progressive programs were concerned about the quality of preparation: given the poverty of southern and inner city public secondary schools, were these young and enthusiastic students even close to being ready for college?
The result was the 13 College Curriculum Project through the Institute for Services to Education. It was led by Dr. Elias Blake, with 70 staff, mostly black, including all the senior positions, funded by the US Department of Education, The Ford and Carnegie Foundations. Within each of the selected colleges, a cohort of a few hundred students were exposed to a dynamic learning process which threw out rote drills, and replaced them with retrained, motivated teachers and a curriculum that was grounded in the students’ experience and which encouraged their creativity.
A social science class matched theories about the dysfunction of the black family against the students’ experience, empowering the students to value their own insights, while demanding the rigor of cogent arguments. A physics class had the students devising their own theory of mass and energy, building from an observed physical demonstration. A math class worked through gaming probabilities, with one precocious student admitting his facility came from running the numbers. An English class dramatized readings, and explored a performance piece with the students accomplishing a lights out, lights on shift between praying and taking. A philosophy class investigated the legitimacy of an African intellectual structure, Muntu, based on animism.
The net impact was a moving model of education that was relatively seamless between home, community, learning and preparation for life. The kind of dialogic participation we value in our best schools, which assumes the intellectual capacity of students, guided by fully engaged and prepared teachers, was the dominant mode in their classrooms.
The program was a brilliant success for the students who participated, but the level of institutional commitment it demanded faded over the years. Although some of the value crept into ordinary curriculum, the teacher training that was so critical went the way of bureaucracy and budgetary cuts – and generations of students were abandoned.
SIX PRECURSORS MEET TEN TRENDS
New Haven of the ‘70s was one example of a systematic approach to community, as was the 13 College Program to education, as was National Service to a social and economic need, as was HCAP to healthcare, as was the consumer cooperative movement. Each of them, in their way, expressed principles and values which were present in society, yet which were denied by countervailing themes.
Nobody said it was going to be easy, but that’s where the ten trends come into play. If those trends are accurately identified, there is a better chance that the principles they represent will be more than curious outliers, and become embedded in the mainstream of society. Learning the lessons of the past includes understanding how changed conditions can deliver more positive outcomes.
- Open source access to information: The marketing and promotional opportunities of the internet would have radically affected the pace, scale and reach of a fair trade initiative, aspects of which have become highly promoted in mainstream marketing – some of their claims even true.
- Sharing: The consumer co-op movement of the ‘70s was built on shared housing, food, childcare, etc. that reduced both individual consumption and expense. After decades of popularizing conspicuous consumption and ownership, the pendulum seems to be swinging back with a host of market-savvy ways of sharing.
- Locality: Even as globalization has gripped peoples’ imagination and pocketbooks, the rebirth of locality in the form of farmers’ markets, local producers, small business and neighborhoods has reinforced social connections.
- Environment: By the late-twentieth century, the shocking impacts of catastrophes like Love Canal, Bhopal and the Exxon Valdez spill had spawned corrective legislation, particularly the Clean Air Act. But it took growing evidence of long-term damage that, unchecked, could end the reign of humanity as Earth’s dominant species, to establish the conditions for serious behavior modification. The implementation of corporate environmental reporting through the work of CERES and GRI and the resulting dialog have some hope of mitigating disastrous choices.
- Best Practices: HCAP’s pioneering work in breaking down healthcare silos demonstrated the value of sharing successful approaches and protocols between organizations. HCAP is gone, but with the Affordable Care Act, there become even more incentives to operate efficiently, and community health centers like CHC Inc. are flourishing
- Facing contradictions between open and closed cultures: The Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, etc. have set a high standard for bridging the gap between cultures with wide disparities. Perhaps that is the best we can expect, and surely better than hordes of youth dazzled by the promise of global largesse, then crushed by the weight of failed delivery. In cities like Amsterdam and Curitiba, villages like Agua Caliente, and the neighborhoods of Burlington, at least there is attention to the general well-being and a real hope of social and economic mobility, while retaining the values of community.
- Distributive systems: After the false dawn of the Consumer Co-op Movement in the ‘70s, overwhelmed by decades of mergers and acquisitions, it seemed the only mainstream paths to diversification were franchises or multi-level marketing. Federated structures like ACE Hardware or IGA and producer cooperatives like Cabot and Blue Diamond allowed some ability to compete with big box stores, and there has been a resurgence of Main Streets in many American towns and cities. Further, the potential of decentralization to change the base of a market economy has arrived with the internet. With the advent of efficient co-generation, and 3-D printing under development, the sky may indeed be the limit.
- Collaboration and Networking: HCAPS had to deal with breaking patterns of hierarchy and proprietary control. Now, teams of clinicians representing mutually supportive disciplines, and specialists linked with primary care providers to offer expertise are validating the conception of Medical Homes caring for the whole family, aware of the needs of the whole community over time.
- Redefining Productivity: The 13 College Curriculum Project threw out the book on nurturing the development of students, and succeeded in educating a previously ignored and insulted segment of a generation to their fullest potential as productive citizens. Our public primary and secondary education system, much less many of our colleges and universities, have yet to achieve that potential. Educational environments, however, like the HUBs and the whole area of entrepreneurship are applying the spirit of valuing real contributions to society and enhancing curiosity.
- Shift towards imagining the future: In its most halcyon years, there was never a doubt among participants that the New Haven Alternative Community or the Consumer Co-ops, or employee ownerships, as part of larger social movement, were creating the future. Except in isolated circumstances, that didn’t happen. Yet the accomplishment of grafting a value-laden application onto an existing, and usually amoral urban platform, demonstrated what could be done to shift society. These days, we have the proliferation of mass-market apocalyptic visions, with salvation dependent on the intervention of bodacious super-heroes. Even so, fear of likely catastrophes has reduced complacency, and an ecological appreciation of our planet leads to more practical exploration and long-range planning.
A MATRIX THEORY OF DEVELOPMENT
On the road to a sustainable world, what is the balance between moderating the macro systems of a global, market economy, and knitting together our communities through systems that derive from community? Top down or bottom up? Do both and meet in the middle?
If a new paradigm is to emerge, our exemplars will need a new level of mutual awareness, and willingness to collaborate on the systemic structures that make it probable. The hopeful news is that these exemplars are already deep into the practice of sharing vision, strategy and tactics. Even better, institutions and sectors that have gone to scale already embrace many of the trends and principles we have proposed.
Without denying the plentitude of human greed, viciousness and stupidity, we’ve got a chance: the potential can be leveraged by Exemplars, even those which have passed their brightest moments. Cross fertilization takes place when there are contacts and overlaps that demonstrate useful. Training for Urban Alternatives, Peace Corps, 13 College Program, HCAP and Consumers United, were successful exemplars of innovation for a time, without inspiring wide-spread replication. All five examples were affected by external support or its withdrawal, and the mood and priorities of the larger society.
Each social experiment leaves its mark on at least the participants. It is the matrix of experiences which create opportunities for insights and innovation, even if they must wait to be taken up in more propitious times.
MINDING THE GAP
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, theoretically ownership through stock can turn the pyramid upside down and democratize distribution.
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. It didn’t last. In the 1980s, 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.
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.