Saturday, November 9, 2013

Buoys in the Transition Fog

For the last four decades I've been in the community business—investigating it, creating it, living it, promoting it, and articulating it. In the last several years that primary focus has morphed to include a focus on cooperative culture (creating a greater sense of community, rather than limiting my scope to residential intentional community) and sustainability (figuring out how to define and manifest a high-quality lifestyle that could be accessible to everyone on the planet). If nothing else, it means I'll never run out of interesting things to do.

To me, the bridge between my community focus and my sustainability focus is broad and obvious. But I've come to understand that the relevance of my many years plying the waters of intentional community is not so clear to those steaming toward sustainability from a more mainstream port of call. While community is the water I swim in, I can look like a pretty exotic fish to many of the newly converted, who are entering the seas of sustainability for the first time—to the point where they're not so sure it's a good idea to have me and my ilk as a pilot for their journey.

At its best, community entails learning how to collaborate—how people with common interests and a future together can come to agreement about how to proceed, even when they start from different viewpoints, have different personalities, and prefer different strategies.

No matter how you slice it, sustainable lifestyles are going to require a higher degree of sharing than most of us are used to—there just aren't enough resources to go around at the rate were used to controlling and consuming them. While I'm not predicting this will lead to everyone living in intentional communities, I think what we're learning in the crucibles of intentional community about how to handle the social dynamics of sharing is absolutely germane to the future that's ahead for all but the über rich. 

By "social dynamics," I'm referring to how to equitably sort out who gets to use a shared resource when multiple people want it at the same time; what will be the standard of maintenance and care for shared resources; how will you navigate frustrations when you don't think these things are going well? In community, we deal with this stuff all the time. (Not always well, mind you, but we're learning, and that experience is hard-earned gold for the path ahead.)

In addition, when you digest where upward spiraling gas prices are heading, you have to anticipate a future that's based more on what you have locally than what you can buy from far away. It means developing a stable, more self-sufficient local culture based on mutual reliance. While no one is advocating a return to medieval feudalism, we will need to learn better how to make common cause, and how better to make room for outliers in our neighborhoods.

Intentional communities are R&D centers for learning how to do these things. To be sure, some are learning faster than others—it isn't all smooth sailing—yet we've been able to significantly advance our understanding about how to have constructive conversations among people holding strongly different opinions about vital concerns. And these skills export well into more mainstream situations where there is increasing need for their application. We have to find ways to solve problems that don't rely on outspending others, building higher fences, voting people off the island, or simply moving away.

Thus, when we witness the dramatic surge in sustainability programs among university curricula (like mushrooms after a spring rain), and how many Transition Towns have popped up across the country (there are currently 143 initiatives in the US, distributed across 35 states, focusing on developing positive responses to the challenges of peak oil, climate change, and economic instability), the FIC gets excited about the potential for collaboration. We figure intentional communities are already wrestling with how to integrate sustainable practices into everyday life: ecologically, socially, and economically.

In the university context, we can offer field trips, guest speakers, and adjunct faculty to programs who want to hear, see, and taste live examples of what their studying. In the Transition Town context, we can help groups learn how to bring together disparate stakeholders—people who are not used to talking with one another, such as business people and tree huggers—and find agreement that respects all parties.

That said, it's been frustrating how little headway we've been able to make (so far) with sustainability programs and Transition Town groups when offering assistance. We have not yet found the way to pitch our skill and experience in such a way that they're attractive to these groups. While we're not giving up, it's both mysterious and humbling that we're having so much trouble penetrating the fog, and appearing as buoys to help navigate safe passage to the harbor of local, sustainable practices.

Meanwhile, we'll keep ringing our bell and hope that a favorable breeze will blow some traffic our way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a start to the conversation I tried to have when I invited representatives from a dozen communities to Monan's Rill in June 2012. I phrased it "how are we in intentional communities uniquely positioned to deal with the coming changes". It is a conversation worth having.