Sustainable communities and political struggles

Monday December 24, 2012

Increasingly, the effort to build sustainable communities includes political struggles. Not only do we need to become more collaborative, resilient, socially just, and self-sufficient to achieve our purpose, we also have to be prepared to meet political challenges. Given the inherent conflict between the values and behaviors of these two approaches, this produces creative tension.

As we’ve argued previously, politics is not the path to building truly sustainable communities. This requires its citizens to minimize the "us vs. them" paradigm that is the essence of politics, as well as the power relationships that inevitably attach to such divisions. To realize a post petroleum community within which we can both survive and thrive, we can’t afford the luxury of a politicized social environment that divides us from one another. The need to collaborate and cooperate is too important to engage in such a destructive self-indulgence.

Yet, we also live in the political world. As our skeptics continually (but correctly) remind us, we have to be practical and realistic. We can’t simply walk away from the political reality that is so much a part of human experience, creating some sanitized utopian enclave, immune from this basic fact of life. Politics is us, whether we like it, or not.

The issue, therefore, is not to deny or avoid, but rather to swim skillfully in the muck of political existence. That is, we need to act with power and efficacy with those forces that seek to dominate and exploit, while remaining true to the values of a sustainable community.

How do we address the political challenges to sustainable communities that are increasingly presenting themselves around such issues as food sovereignty, GMO labeling, and the extraction of unconventional fossil fuels through tar sands and fracking?

Towns in Massachusetts, Vermont, California, and especially in Maine have passed home rule ordinances that assert the right of citizens to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods, without federal and state regulations to impede or usurp a citizen’s right to foods of their choice.

Not surprisingly, this has placed towns on a collision course with their state’s Agriculture Department, the latter often serving as an agent of the USDA and its corporate masters. At the heart of these efforts is the inherent conflict that sustainable communities present to the corporate state in their efforts to be self-sufficient, and, hence, independent. As one of these ordinances reads, "our right to a local food system requires us to assert our inherent right to self-government."

If the courts rule against the local communities, and the state attempts to close down farmers, resistance could move from working within the system to non-violent direct action, with communities rallying to provide physical protection of those so threatened, while at the same time creating guerrilla methods of producing and distributing local food.

Another attempt at legal reform is in the efforts to have GMO food labeled as such. Up to now, this campaign has focused on encouraging citizens to write to the FDA, urging this corporate-influenced body to support mandatory labeling, while trying to get states to create their own regulation through legislation (e.g., Vermont’s H. 722 that failed last year), or by placing propositions on the ballot (California’s Prop 37 that was defeated in November).

Trying to exploit whatever channels the system seems to provide can be a good first step to getting citizens involved. But once the traps and dead ends that are inherent to this path are exposed, alternatives must be considered. Prop 37 was defeated by the flood of corporate money that poured into the state during the final weeks leading up to Nov. 6. And H. 722 never stood a chance because Governor Shumlin made it clear that, while "GMO labeling makes sense," he would veto such a measure because he didn’t "think it is fair to ask Vermonters to bear the burden of the cost of legal challenges."

A more promising campaign might be one that approaches those enterprises within our communities that pride themselves on the quality of their food offerings. Member petitions presented to the Boards of, say, the Brattleboro and Putney Co-ops, requesting that they label the GMO food they carry, would be one step. But ultimately, the effort may include organizing buying clubs, a farmers’ cooperative and local food hubs, perhaps even a daily farmers market which, together with our own communities of gardens, could provide us with a local, year round, organic diet.

As our situation grows increasingly urgent and more tenuous, however, there will be a commensurate need for communities to protect themselves from government inaction, corporate greed, and societal indifference. Regrettably, desperation and nihilism can also develop at this time, with violence being the inevitable result. Even now, there are some who are advocating the formation of underground groups to attack property.

But violence is double-edged; invariably, it begets blowback in kind. Once that genie is loose, all bets are off. Resorting to this most ancient political practice would be nothing more than the latest attempt to impose our will on others, which is the origin of our dilemma, to begin with. As such, it is anathema for a sustainable community.

We need to be more creative and skillful, instead, effectively resisting in ways that are compatible with our values. It’s best for us to operate beneath the radar while doing so in plain sight, engaging in actions that are imaginative, counter-intuitive, outside-the-box. Even when push comes to shove, community-wide, non-violent direct action, performed and supported by a committed citizenry, is always the best course.

Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and can be reached at 802-869-2141 and


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