The Costs of Community, and then Sharon Astyk’s response, On the Problem of Community and I wanted to add some thoughts to the flow.

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Why community might not need organising

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I read with interest John Michael Greer’s recent post, The Costs of Community, and then Sharon Astyk’s response, On the Problem of Community and I wanted to add some thoughts to the flow. Here is a very quick summary of the debate thus far… Greer’s basic argument is that the way politics used to work was that citizens formed themselves into groups and those groups into movements and that was what brought the pressure to bear to make things happen. Today, we are so atomised and isolated that this doesn’t happen, due, in part, to our preciously-guarded sense of autonomy, our lack of time, and our lack of enthusiasm for putting in the work that actually building communities entails. Rebuilding community, he argues, “requires “sacrificing some of the autonomy so many Americans guard jealously”.

Astyk agrees, but wonders why it is that so few of us actually put the work into building community, and concludes that it is in part due to the fact that we are all working so hard, absurdly long hours for little gain, and have little enough time for ourselves and our families, never mind our communities. The rebuilding of communities, she argues, will only hapen when “many of us disengage from the workforce … establishing community needs time, the hardest single thing to claim”. Of course the current economic contraction is meaning that for many, this is not a conscious decision, many are losing their jobs and finding themselves time rich and income poor. This might be seen as not just a hardship, she argues, but as holding the seeds to the rebuilding of community so essential in this time. “Until someone goes home again, the hopes of our imagined communities are fairly faint”. I hope I have done justice to Greer and Astyk’s points before I go on to set out my own.

Their posts are very timely as they co-incide with some thinking I have been doing over recent weeks, which I offer here in a half-formed form. Yesterday I was sent a new film, called ‘The Turning Point: a return to community”, produced from footage made at the 2007 Positive Energy conference at Findhorn. It has Joanna Macy, Richard Heinberg, Megan Quinn Bachman and myself among others, as well as lots of footage from around the Findhorn community and related ‘powerdown’ projects such as local food gardens, farms etc. It is a very well made film offering a tantalising and inspiring take on what resilience might look like in practice. I watched it with my 16 year old son, who had attended the conference with me, and half way through he remarked ‘I haven’t heard anyone who is actually Scottish yet’.

His observation still applied by the time we reached the end of the film. This is not to criticise the film or Findhorn, who do a great deal of wonderful and vital work, but the use of the word ‘community’ in the film is very interesting. Findhorn, and many other intentional communities and eco-villages, with notable exceptions, are self-selecting communities. Virtually everyone who had come together to form the community at Findhorn has intentionally chosen to be there. I may be wrong, but I don’t imagine there are people living there because that’s where the Council allocated them housing. Mostly people are white, educated, middle class and given to spiritual activities. It is a community of course, and it is a vital learning centre, a laboratory, but it is not the kind of unintentional community most of us live in.

Greer notes in his piece that “one of the reasons I don’t dismiss the Transition Town movement, though I have serious doubts about some aspects of it, is precisely that many of the people involved in it have committed themselves to it in a meaningful sense, and the movement itself has succeeded in some places in building a critical mass of commitment and energy”. Greer is right, it has done that, in some places, and I want to reflect on some of that. First thing I want to say is that for me, relocalisation is not just about a political shift. It is predominantly a cultural and economic shift. It is a fine idea, speculated upon to death on websites like mine, but I am increasingly drawn to the observation that the people that are making it happen are not the thinkers, the bloggers, the philosophers, but the self-starters, the enrepreneurs, who get on with it and start projects.

I do feel that there is something faintly patronising about the idea that we need to ‘create community’. It is like a couple who move into a rural village and wonder why “nothing is happening here” and then alienate themselves by trying to start lots of things without just immersing themselves first and discovering what is already happening there. Community is already there in most cases. It is not the consensual, huggy, ‘let’s have a shared dinner’ kind of community that Findhorn specialises in. It is a more chaotic, far more diverse, stubborn and atomised kind of community. But it does exist. It is neither better, nor worse, just different.

On my street for example, I know about half of the people, and there have been attempts at community events. Many of them I have been too busy or tired to attend, but what becomes clear is that although they serve a purpose, actually the street, as any street, is an overlay of different webs of relationships. The person at No. 7 knows people at 8, 10, 4, 3, 15 and 18, the person at No. 8 knows the people at 7, 6, 12, 13, 20 and 2, and so on. I maybe know a whole different group of people again. If our expectation is that the entire street can only be classed as being a ‘community’ only when they have all held a street party or made compost together, we are going to wallow in disappointment for some considerable time. What happens though, is that certain projects emerge, usually driven by a few committed and passionate characters, around which that community can coalesce, and begin to take owenership of.

I have struggled to find an analogy for this. The best I can come up with is a ‘Grow Your Own Crystal’ kit I had as a child. You mixed a particular chemical solution, and then dangled a piece of string coated in another solution into it. After a while crystals started to form around the string. Without the string, all that potential crystalness would have just continued to float about. With the string, it had something to latch on to, and to realise its crystal potential, as it were. Not the best analogy I ever come up with, but hopefully it gets the point across, in that rather than feeling we have to ‘create community’ from scratch, perhaps we might look at it that actually we need to make interventions around which community can form.

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A couple of examples from Totnes. The first Transition Together group in Totnes, which started from one person going around and knocking on doors and suggesting a group form to do the programme developed by TTT, has been an amazing success. All sorts of things are starting to happen, including a bulk buy of photovoltaics and a marked increase in the numbers of people gardening. In the snow, theirs was the one street that procured its own grit and came together to grit their own street. Whether there is any connection between that and the Transition Together influence would be speculation of course, but something has undoubtedly been galvanised.

In the focus groups I have been running as part of my PhD research, one of the things that has emerged as a key driver for change is the value of inspiring examples of ordinary people taking a lead. In one part of town, many people on a street now grow food due to the inspiration of one young couple who moved in and turned their front lawn into a food garden. The Transition Together group’s street mentioned about was picked up on by several people from different parts of the town, one woman noting that “they actually have got the wartime spirit, and they have street parties, like a little village”.

rickshaw

The second example is the Totnes Rickshaw Company. This is a project based in the town, not run by TTT but allied to it, where a local entrepreneur imported 3 Indian rickshaws, collects the chip fat from local chip shops, and uses the fuel to power the low impact (albeit slightly boneshaking) transport option (which you may have seen in the recent Al-Jazeera film about Totnes). This initiative was the work of one committed and passionate man who just got on with it, but now the rickshaws are viewed with pride, and some amusement, by most of the community. While Greer is right that much of change happens because groups form and they then become movements, we mustn’t also forget the people in there who also make things happen, the social entrepreneurs, the innovators. We leave them out of the story at our peril.

The accusation often levelled at Transition groups, although it could just as easily be levelled at the environmental movement as a whole, is that it is predominantly white and middle class. Although this is not uniformly the case, it is, in the main, a fair call at this early stage in its development. Transition Network interviews next week for a Diversity Coordinator to explore how this might be addressed practically, but I feel that in a world where, as Astyk observes, people are running faster than ever before (slavery excepted) just to stand still, and with Transition initiatives being unfunded and in need of volunteer time from those with some spare time to offer, it is inevitable that that demographic will come to predominate. However, my thinking is increasingly that the deeper engagement that successful energy descent will need, and which Greer and Astyk’s articles both long for, will come about most vigorously when people have a stake in it, a vested interest.

The social enterprise model is key here. As the chickens of last year’s economic turmoil come home to roost, purse strings tighten, both public and private, and grant dependent community initiatives will struggle. I am increasingly led to think that the social enterprise model offers the best of everything. We can create viable economic models that are free of grant dependency, building companies, food businesses, energy advice. My experience though is that these work best when they are the work of one or two key entrepreneurs. These people, if they form energy companies for example, dangle the string in the crystal juice that the community can rally around.

The Totnes Rickshaw company, for example, is the work on one or two driven and visionary people, who force these things along. My emerging sense is that Phase Two of Transition initiatives is to shift to promoting a culture of social enterprise and to support, train and enable it. This is where Totnes is starting to get to. Strictly speaking, in so far as the Transition model is set out in the Transition Handbook, we are nearly finished. Our Energy Descent Action Plan, Step 12 of the 12 Steps, is nearly ready to go. The truth is though, that really we are only just starting, and the question as to how to make it happen is key. Perhaps Step 13 is to promote social entrepreneurship. Nurture the ideas that emerge from the EDAP and start building the parallel public infrastructure that way.

What is distinct about the Transition approach though, it seems to me, is about context. Many projects like the rickshaws, local food production, local energy companies are all great, but Transition puts them in a context. It weaves a larger tapestry, tells the story about what could happen if they are all joined up, part of an historic push. While it is true that the Transition, the successful navigation of energy descent, will need community, it will also need its stubborn, visionary, determined and headstrong pioneers in order for it to start to crystallise around our metaphorical piece of string. While the work of ‘creating community’ is vital, we must also recognise that much more of it exists than we often give credit, even if it does look different to our idea of community. It is also essential to acknowledge that like our home-made crystals, or a rock on which lichens can grow, just a few people can start to put in place the bones of a Transition economy, and the support will come. They may prove to be one of our most precious natural resources.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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