A sustainable community doesn’t just happen by chance. In contrast to the spontaneous acts of generosity, kindness and good will exhibited during times of short-term emergencies, sustainable communities are for the long haul, where selfless behaviors are part of everyday life.
But because our highly industrialized, fossil fuel-driven societies do not naturally inspire sustainable living arrangements, these must be intentionally developed. As it is with any behavior that is not habitual or customary, the commendable conduct we associate with a crisis must be mindfully nurtured during the mundane, non-crisis moments of our present lives, as well, if it’s to become a consistent part of our lives.
Furthermore, the innate human potential for unselfish behavior is finite. It has its limits, as we saw post-Irene when the many examples of neighborly help that did so much good waned in the face of the severity and duration of what still had to be done. Once the urgency of the immediate crisis receded, people returned to their more privatized and isolated lives.
This is a luxury that we can ill afford as we confront the necessary adaptation we will have to make to the fundamentally disruptive world of climate change. While Irene was very serious, it will be seen in retrospect as a relatively minor event when compared to that which we can reasonably expect as we move into what James Kunstler has termed, "the long emergency," and Paul Gilding has labeled, "the great disruption.
Spontaneous community spirit will, hopefully, continue to manifest itself in the face of this unfolding crisis, and produce those selfless acts that human beings are perfectly capable of. They represent the promise and hope we have for our kind, behaviors that if they were practiced with greater consistency would result in the decent world we’ve wanted all along, and now need more than ever.
For the long haul, however, this community spirit, alone, is not sufficient. To successfully transition, this priceless, but underdeveloped capacity of ours will be severely tasked, and eventually depleted by both the challenges of adapting to this brave new world, as well as the corrosive culture of ego that is at the heart of our unprecedented crisis. To both survive and eventually flourish as a community norm, we must create a culture of sustainable community, one characterized by quotidian mutual aid and civic engagement. We must practice the practice. By doing so, and regardless of our human limitations, our potential for doing the right thing will become an increasing part of the community’s social infrastructure, a habit woven into our daily interactions with one another, not dependent upon spontaneous expression alone to be real.
We begin, perhaps, by engaging people we know, our families and friends, people in our neighborhood who also "get it" about climate change, as well as with groups that we’re part of, such as town emergency committees, religious congregations, and civic, social, and fraternal organizations. At the same time, however, we must keep in mind that sustainability is only possible to the extent that everyone in the community is included from the beginning. This cannot be left to "good intentions" alone, but is best accomplished with intentional actions, ones that reflect our awareness of how our acculturation over the years has divided us from one another into power relationships based on gender, class, race, sexuality, and so forth. In building a sustainable community, we always ask ourselves, "Is everyone at the table?"
People are most likely to come together around practical matters and felt needs, and stay together when they’re involved in doing real things. This includes community food sufficiency where people increasingly meet their needs through shared gardens, root cellars, hoop houses, poultry raising, and canning bees. The same is true with shared child care, manual and intellectual labor, tools, appliances, and vehicles. Reviving a broader understanding of "barn raising," along with regular pot-luck suppers and community socializing, further strengthens the relationships that are essential to a sustainable community.
Given our experiences with Irene and Sandi, we can also begin to prepare for extreme weather events, disruptions in our food and energy supply, or a sudden economic dislocation. Anticipating an emergency, especially one that may last weeks, even months, when the grocery stores have been stripped bare, there is no electricity to pump water, the banks and gas stations are closed, and health facilities and government emergency services are overwhelmed or inoperative, is both practical and realistic living in a world, as we do, where calamitous events are more common.
It’s not unreasonable to be skeptical about the possibility of creating intentionally sustainable neighborhoods, especially for those of us for whom "neighborhoods" and "communities" are little more than a faceless address. How do we engage each other around intentional community building given the materialistic, individualistic, essentially self-serving cultural baggage we’ve burdened ourselves with throughout our history? How do we make the leap, from where we are, and really don’t want to be, to where we need to be?
A paradigm shift such as this is like the ice skim on the pond that merges over time with other skim to eventually harden and deepen, becoming the rock solid body we can all stand on. It begins with seemingly small, modest acts -- an emergency phone tree amongst our neighbors, a ride sharing plan, or a cooperative child care arrangement -- that can then grow into efforts around more basic concerns such as food sufficiency, cooperative solar energy, shared vehicles, and mutual aid. Pursued with the purposefulness and conscientiousness required, these steps will increasingly create a community culture that will institutionalize our capacity for the selfless behavior that will sustain us for the long haul.
Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and can be reached at 802-869-2141 and firstname.lastname@example.org.