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The church model for environmental groups

Not too long ago, I had an argument with another peak oil writer about what level political action on peak oil and climate change should proceed. I suggested that perhaps the municipal level was thinking too large - that what we need are neighborhood groups, he argued in favor of city levels.

Now I'm not at all sure that this is an either/or issue - I suspect we need both. But the discussion was useful for helping me clarify some thoughts I've had about what might be needed to move the "peak oil" and "climate change" groups from their present role - as thinly spread "special interest" groups and towards becoming a larger, and more powerful network.

The fact is, historically speaking many large scale social changes have worked best on a neighbor to neighbor, very intimate scale, either instead of or in conjunction with larger scale practices. For example, food and gas rationing during WWII were being flouted until neighborhood pledge groups were started, and block captains became responsible for helping people adhere to new policies. The same programs were used to manage civil defense and volunteer labor groups. The reality is that top down management is very difficult without some micro-level programs to work with - which is why in times of war, women's groups, and other social and cultural institutions were always among the first groups mobilized.

Please understand, I begin this with no implied critiques of any of the response groups out there - on the contrary, I admire what all these groups have accomplished, and believe their work to be of the utmost importance. But there are several limitations to such in-person programs - first of all, unless you live in a population center, they are thin on the ground. The nearest such groups to me are 15-30 miles - an awfully long drive for someone committed to cutting emissions.

And such groups suffer from the same problems almost all political/special interest groups do - small membership and heavy burdens on the few people willing to do the work. If, in fact, we're in the process of sliding off the plateau, as the data suggests, we are going to need to get more people involved, and quickly. Moreover, these groups reinforce the notion that community is something you mostly create with "like minded" people who agree with you about peak oil and the Bush administration. But there's simply no chance that most of us are going to spend the coming decades working primarily with people who live 15 miles from us - we are going to have to get local - real local. That is not to say that I don't see the real and practical value of spending time with people who already "get it," or of devoting some time and energy to exchanging ideas about approaches with others in person, but our primary work must be local - perhaps on the municipal level, but if we're really returning to a foot economy, probably even more so at the neighborhood level.

So I began to consider what would be required to start neighborhood groups that might engage people within our existing communities, and enable those communities to start preparing for climate change and peak oil. And instead of looking at leftist community groups, I started by asking myself what the most successful social organizations are in my area - successful at attracting membership, but also successful at getting members to do their share of the work.

So far, peak oil and climate change groups have focused on the other people who have figured out what is going on. But right now, in the early stages of the crisis, there are simply too few people who have put all the pieces together. With another decade to prepare and teach, such an approach might work. With only a short time, the odds are against it. Compare this to churches or synagogues or mosques, who invite in nearly everyone in a given community, opening their doors as widely as they can.

If we are to have success we are going to have to use a different model, one that I call “the church model” – I say this not to be alienating to those who are not religious, but in recognition that religious communities have been far more successful at building community structures than any secular organization, and that if we are to create overarching community organizations that sustain us in hard times, and enable us to manage our communities in the face of crisis, we’re going to have to use a successful model.

The “church model” has four factors that are very different from groups like the Relocalization and similar groups I’m familiar with. They are:

1. Low Barriers to Entry
2. They have something to offer immediately
3. They have a plan and a routine for dealing with crises

The first factor is enormously important if we are to move beyond regional groups to the local level. Right now environmental groups tend to have a fairly high entry barrier – that is, you have to be fully aware of climate change or peak oil, and aware enough to consider working on these issues a high priority. Given that the majority of the country still considers these problems secondary to others, that’s fairly unusual. It is unlikely that in a crisis involving energy shortages, we’ll have the gas to drive the distances between such groups. This means that we need to engage not a few aware people half an hour from us, but our neighbors.

How do we do that? We lower the barriers to entry. Instead of having “peak oil” or groups for the climate change aware, we have “neighborhood coops” or “community preparedness” groups. Robert Waldrop, founder of the Oklahoma City Food Coop, observes that he doesn’t talk much about “peak oil” with the people he works with – instead, he talks about how good local food tastes, and about how hard it is to make ends meet. The name doesn’t matter (except in the sense that a cool one would be helpful - suggestions?) – the common ground does.

We also have to lower political barriers - the truth is that environmentalism is associated with the American left. But the left has been too powerless too long to bring about massive social change in most regions. The nation is too politically divided for that. Thus, for these groups to thrive, they must avoid political purity tests - it doesn't matter whether your neighbor hates Bush or loves him. What matters is that the two of you have common ground in other areas. I don't deny this can be tough - but it is necessary. In some regions, the political idea of environmentalism will be a positive advertisement - in other places, the emphasis will have to be on personal security, autonomy, conserving what we have, saving money. We will need to be culturally flexible to create such a network.

The second and perhaps most important thing that such groups have to do is offer members an immediate reason to work together. There are some of us, who will do thankless work for long periods with no reward, but most of us join groups for selfish reasons – we want to find community, we want support, friendship, a platform for our ideas. We may also care about the larger world, but we get some gratification from being together and doing the work. Churches do this well – when people join a church, eventually they are asked to do their share of the work, to donate money and volunteer, but initially, they are offered something – friendship, a pleasurable worship experience, a meal, religious education for their kids. We need our groups to provide something now, not just hypothetical help in the future.

This is even truer because we are now in the early stages of a crisis, and many of the people who join with us may be undergoing personal difficulties and troubles. It is not feasible to have a “climate change” group that has no support or solutions for the victims of climate change now, for example. That doesn’t mean we have to be able to fix everything, or that we have to immediately have the funds for major investments, but we do have to be able to offer emotional support, a lift for someone out of gas, a casserole for a neighbor dealing with illness. We need to start where we are again. We also need plans for the longer term, but we have to start small, with the ordinary work of human exchange – I think too often, our community building efforts have ignored the importance of these small things.

Finally, such groups need to begin creating a plan for the longer term. How will people in your neighborhood get water? Who has space in their yard to grow food? How will you check in on the elderly and disabled? Where will the kids go to school if the buses stop running? Your first steps should take you towards your next ones – today, a carpool to get neighbors to the grocery store, tomorrow a bulk buying club and a Victory garden group to make fewer shopping trips necessary.

Right now there are municipalities dealing with some of these questions - the Transition Towns initiative, spearheaded by Rob Hopkins is a particularly inspiring example. But we need to have a model available for those who cannot get their towns on board, and we will need neighborhood groups to make door to door and ground level social change - that is, the issue is not "municipal vs. neighborhood" - the two enable one another. Particularly when we are talking about basic issues - where to get food, how to conserve water, how to care for seniors - policy level programming can't work without direct, grassroots, person to person networks. That is, it is possible to imagine a town instituting food rationing policies, but not possible for those to be adhered to without lots of practical help in cooking, obtaining supplies, protecting the interests of the powerless, etc...

I am, of course, ignoring the thing that churches and other religious organizations offer that peak oil and climate change groups probably can't offer - the link to G-d, or to G-d in oneself (depending on your faith). I am not claiming that such groups can take the place of churches, or that they can achieve what religious communities are often able to achieve. And yet, there has been a consistent tendency in many religious communities around the US to move towards faith-lite - religion with a strong emphasis on fixing your personal problems, rather than on submission to a larger belief (I'm making no judgement about which is better here). That is, to some degree, it seems that there are a lot of people seeking comfort and the chance to dance in a circle, rather than a deep relationship with G-d. Perhaps that community, or those who have a deep relationship with G-d and time for another community, might be engaged, as well as the secular and concerned.

It is worth a shot.

Sharon

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