The very aim of our society seems to be to remove from
people responsibility for their lives and acts. The way of
transformation must be the exact opposite of this. Whatever
else it may lead to, it must make us into free, responsible
individuals, able to direct our own lives in accordance
with the greatest objective good.
- J. G. Bennett, Transformation
The term sustainability refers to how various systems – ecological, cultural, biological, etc. – remain diverse and productive over time. For many of us, sustainability suggests the potential for long-term maintenance of our well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions. However, many of these systems that once kept sustainability within natural limits are breaking down.
Many of the world’s nations have been living the high life as a result of the prosperity afforded by rapid industrial, technological, and material growth. The long tail of this—the technological revolution—has been fundamental in stretching tentacles of dependency far and wide. Complex structures of supply, demand, and energy are now near to their breaking points. According to social commentator James Howard Kunstler, those of us who presently live in the comfortable Western countries are facing “the comprehensive downscaling, rescaling, downsizing, and relocalizing of all our activities, a radical reorganization of the way we live in the most fundamental particulars.” However, just as humans are a social species, individuals are the building blocks of society. Social philosopher Duane Elgin states that for a sustainable future to be viable it needs six requirements: to dismantle consumerism; to return to ecological living; to engage with sustainable futures; to create a conscious democracy; to embrace a reflective paradigm; and to work with reconciliation. All these features support a communal immersion; the very opposite of what has been occurring within the western urban landscape. To a large degree modern urban living has contributed in isolating individuals from their wider social community and from the influence of their peers. What is needed is for us to re-vitalize our social communities.
Re-vitalizing Social Communities
Urban life is increasingly out of balance with the needs of the people. This is especially so if the individual is dependent upon supermarket food supplies, petrol station fuel, and other necessary external amenities. In short, the average urbanite is partly (and sometimes wholly) dependent upon the plentiful supply of ‘always available’ goods, such as food and energy.
It is important that creative individuals view the upcoming years (or even decades) as opportunities to transform these dense urban zones into more compact, sustainable living centres. For example, instead of segregated areas the city could be functionally integrated between living, working, and leisure areas; mixed-income communities integrated as different skill-sets are likely to be important rather than traditional income status. Also, public spaces can be transformed into well-integrated and interconnected walkable networks and easy-access corridors. A sense of community needs to be re-vitalized through open spaces, parks, and community landscaping projects such as communal gardens and food gardens. Superstores and large shopping complexes should be replaced with local shopping areas and farmer’s markets. Whilst this may sound the death-knell for many corporate giants, their presence will be replaced by something more beneficial to the community. The large supermarkets have exploited and manipulated consumer demand for too long, and many smaller retailers and farmers have suffered greatly over their monopoly. There are already positive signs that groups of individuals are recognizing the urgent need to transform urban living centres.
A recent movement called NewUrbanism was established online in 1998 and has grown to promote ‘good urbanism, smart transportation, transit oriented development and sustainability’. The organisation promotes policies for national and local governments to revitalise many existing cities and towns into walkable, car-free, mixed-use communities. Out of this ‘new urbanism’ movement has also emerged a trend in urban development called Transit-Oriented Development , or TOD. For example, in the town of Orenco Station (15 miles west of Portland, US) transit-oriented development has been successfully implemented. It was designed as a neighbourhood community and organized around a pedestrian spine that extends out towards a grid of walkable tree-lined streets and parks. The town promotes a walkable, pedestrian-friendly community and discourages the use of the car and other fossil-fuel transit. Similarly, the ‘Transition Towns’ movement was established as a means to design a strategy for helping small towns move away from fossil fuel dependency. It also promotes public participation and citizen action within the context of a sustainable and self-sufficient community. The first UK ‘transition town’ was Totnes in Devon, where local town forums were created for citizens to come together and decide on ways to develop low-carbon energy resources. In other words, how better to survive in a ‘post-peak oil’ world.
A prescient report from 1997 forecasted a possible future social scenario that was termed the Great Transition which involved a social shift towards new paradigms of sustainability in the form of Eco-communalism . In this the report envisioned a network of self-reliant communities:
Eco-communalism could emerge from a New Sustainability Paradigm world if a powerful consensus arose for localism, diversity, and autonomy… Eco-communalism might emerge in the recovery from ‘breakdown’. Under conditions of reduced population and a rupture in modern institutions, a network of societies, guided by a “small-is-beautiful” philosophy conceivably could arise. (Gallopin, G. H., A. Raskin, P. Swart, R. (1997) Branch Points: Global Scenarios and Human Choice. Stockholm Environment Institute – Global Scenario Group. 1-47)
Physical social networks modelled on self-reliant communities could be established that are based around ecological practices. Another example of creative architectural thinking is that of the ‘Compact City’ proposal from celebrity architect Richard Rogers. Rogers proposes that the creation of the modern Compact City rejects the dominance of the car and instead favours a design whereby ‘communities thrive’ and the streets are re-balanced ‘in favour of the pedestrian and the community’. Further, Rogers’s ‘Compact City’ design proposes that home, work, and leisure districts/regions/zones become more densely interrelated and overlapped rather than as separated areas. The compact city idea is to increase the density of shared spaces so that there are increased opportunities for social connection and interaction. There is a rise worldwide in urban innovation that seeks to move towards constructing more compact, sustainable communities. This will become more of an imperative, rather than luxury thinking, in the ensuing years. Such changes will need to be implemented if our social systems are to be resilient enough to adapt to the coming global changes. The emphasis needs to be upon recycling of goods and waste, efficient alternative energy production, localized distribution, and change in such social drivers as consumerism, economics, and general well-being. Over recent years there has been a vigorous interest in permaculture as a way of combining living centres with agricultural systems.
Permaculture is a way of integrating the ecology of natural agricultural practices with the needs of the community. The word permaculture, as a combination of permanent agriculture and permanent culture, reflects the social aspects of the system. Permaculture encourages the construction of self-sufficient communities that work with nature’s cycles within the surrounding ecosystem. Permaculture is often seen as a more holistic system as it looks at both the natural (agricultural) and human systems as a whole, rather than as separate systems. In this way localized communities could benefit tremendously from incorporating permaculture practices into their way of life. Not only would it provide a means for self-sufficiency but also help to sustain the local ecosystems at a time of increased strain. However, one of the immediate concerns will be energy requirements.
Energy Sources & Local Economies
Given that a true free-energy revolution is still an uncertainty, alternative energy will need to be harnessed from solar, wind, water, and other natural sources. The corporate red-herring of agro-fuels (mass-produced ‘bio’-fuels) is likely to be rejected by local communities who are seeking to shift to low-carbon alternatives using ‘real’ biofuels. True biofuels are produced from waste such as biogas from manure or landfill or waste vegetable oil. Their development, however, is so far limited. This situation is likely to change once necessity becomes a key factor. Already some local communities are developing their own low-key diesel manufacturing through re-cycling waste vegetable oil. These DIY projects can be developed further by well-organised communities using agricultural processes.
There are a range of oilseed crops, such as sunflower, rape seeds, soy, palm and jatropha, which can be converted into biodiesel used on its own or blended with conventional diesel. A range of cellulosic materials, such as various waste products from crops (including grasses, trees and wood) can be broken down with enzymes and turned into bio-ethanol. Bio-ethanol can also be produced from a number of crops including sugarcane, sugar beet, barley, corn/maize, grain, and cotton. Using cellulosic biomass to produce ethanol would lessen the strain placed upon standard agricultural land needed for growing crops. Butanol is currently a potential second-generation bio-fuel produced by fermentation from a range of organic material, such as molasses left behind by sugar production or whey from cheese production. Butanol has several advantages over ethanol in terms of higher energy output and being easily blended with diesel. In the future we may see regional areas, and localized communities, adopting a bottom-up biofuels market that would serve to create energy-sufficient lifestyles. This can be achieved not only through a supply of recyclable waste but also through citizen-managed low-scale farming. Genuine biofuel schemes could be located within sustainable programs based within active communities and separate from corporate top-down energy suppliers. This would involve a move from mass production to distributed and localised schemes which would aid many communities. It is foreseeable that these, and more, energy innovations will begin to manifest through grass-roots pioneering and newly emerging citizen information networks. The corporate control and monopoly upon such natural resources, and primary human needs, will be rejected for local empowerment projects.
Alternative technologies are arising that seek to bypass traditional dependencies as the civil movement grows in power and determination. There are now markets for rocket stoves, vegetable oil generators, solar fridges, cheap wind generators, and reusable water bottles used as solar lamps. Innovations are also turning shipping containers into virtually cost-free homes. Social information networks are advising people on how to make their own soap, toothpaste, clothes, and much more. Instead of re-cycling there is now a movement towards pre-cycling ; that is, training people on how to exist not only on what they have but to transform their conception of necessity so that non-primary needs are taken out of the equation. Individuals and communities are learning how to live more on less. Part of this re-education is a perceptual paradigm (a ‘new mind for a new world’). For many of us, if we don’t choose to think and behave differently in the upcoming years, then we may be forced into change.
Also on the increase are localized micro-finances whereby communities are issuing their own specific local currencies as a means of promoting local business growth. This is a Depression-era idea and helps to tie-in local consumers with their neighbourhood suppliers. It works by local businesses printing money and then consumers exchanging national currencies for the locally issued one and redeeming them in participating stores. Communities throughout Europe, North America, and Asia are buying food and fuel with such currencies as the ‘Detroit Cheers’ and the Bia Kut Chum. Exchange and credit/barter systems have also been running successfully as in the ‘Local Exchange Trading Systems’ (LETS) that are local, exchange networks that trade goods and services without using a currency. Instead, a credit system is in operation whereby individuals can earn credits by performing services which can then be swapped for gaining the services of others. At present it is estimated that over 400 such schemes operate in the UK alone, with others in France, Australia, and Switzerland.
Cultivating Sustainable Food Tastes
Projects and schemes already underway around the world include gardening workshops for growing-your-own. Information made available for ‘self-farmers’ will encourage food production to be once again a prime aspect of family and civic life. There is currently a growth in the number of urban gardens and communal composting. Neighbourhoods are sourcing water supplies and introducing local permaculture schemes. Social networks are already established that seek to bring home-gardeners together to share tips, advice, and friendship. One such social network – Freedom Gardens – describes itself as ‘a food security movement person to person…A modern gardening era/movement for the 21st century resulting in efforts to become free of foreign oil, corporate controls, contamination and food miles while creating a sustainable future by promoting local food production’. Inspired innovators are currently developing new sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture that push towards forming a ‘post-industrial food system’ that is less resource intensive and more locally-based and managed. An array of such start-ups include BrightFarm Systems, SPIN-Farming, Virtually Green, Aquacopia, and NewSeed Advisors. Similarly, new networks are emerging of investors, donors, entrepreneurs, farmers, and activists who are committed to building local food systems and local economies.
There has also been a huge interest in the Slow Food Movement. This international organization, originating in Italy, advocates that the education of taste is imperative and people need to develop and deepen their knowledge about food by eating produce which is produced, sourced, sold and prepared in sustainable and equitable ways. In three years membership in the Slow Food Movement grew from 500 to 8,000. The emphasis is upon the enjoyment of food as well as, importantly, the cultivation of awareness of food culture as an effort to conserve distinctive local food products. The Slow Food Movement operates through local groups or chapters known as convivia . Twenty years after the formation of Slow Food, there are 1000 convivia with more than 100,000 members in 132 countries from all over the world.
Not only are our tastes changing – also the very manner of how we make use of our resources in all areas of our lives. Being a global citizen also requires that we are locally responsible. Sustainability is a core value for a harmonious, well-balanced future.