Friday, April 09, 2010

The Social Collective

Just as humans are a social species, individuals are the building blocks of society. The worth of any society is the sum of the citizens who comprise it. Unfortunately, most political systems dumfound and dumb-down the masses, and castrate the power of the people. Yet this form of social castration has been increasingly contested over recent years by the welcome emergence and rise of some powerful and potent civil movements and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A part of the upcoming social transitions will be the need for increased social agency. The social community should once again become an empowering body; a collective that invests diverse individuals to work together for the common good. In this way people are encouraged to become more creative, constructive, and influential within collective life. This can work as an encouragement for each person to develop to the best of their capacity; to be a functional human, able to transform dynamic inner power into a productive and useful force. Repeating what was said before, the renowned metaphysical poet John Donne once wrote - no man is an island.

Social scientist and futurist Duane Elgin has researched and written extensively upon the subject of social consciousness and evolving societies. In this respect he writes that

When we communicate and reflect among ourselves as citizens—publicly learning about and affirming our shared sentiments as an extended community—then we “know that we know.” In our dangerous and difficult time of global transition, it is not sufficient for civilizations to be wise; we must become “doubly wise” through social communication that clearly reveals our collective knowing to ourselves. Once there is a capacity for sustained and authentic social reflection, we will then have the means to achieve a shared understanding and a working consensus regarding appropriate actions for a positive future. Actions can then come quickly and voluntarily. We can mobilize ourselves purposefully, and each person can contribute his or her unique talents to building a life-affirming future.

Elgin goes on to state 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. Many have been starved of developmental input that comes from dynamic social intercourse. Progress cannot be achieved through extremes: neither through total individualism (anarchy) nor through an absolute collective (totalitarianism). As in quantum physics, each living organism has the capacity to function both as a sentient individual (the particle), and as part of the unified collective field (the wave).

In fact, the concept of the ‘organic collective’ has been a central theme running through many science-fiction stories. As just one obscure example, a pulp paperback sci-fi book from Norman Spinrad called ‘The Solarians’ (1966) has the following extract:

‘As the human race evolves, the differences among its individual members become greater, not less. Specialisation becomes more and more pronounced. And if the race continued to be organised on the basis of nations, clans, families of like clustering together…

‘The human race would explode!’

‘Exactly,’ said Lingo. ‘The Organic Group is a new basic unit, based not on the similarity of its members, but on their differences. It’s not merely a good idea – its an evolutionary necessity…And of course, with the basic unit built upon this kind of functional cooperation, the whole civilisation is stable and unified.’

So the growth and development of the individual within a diverse yet coherent collective might be, using the words of Lingo above, not merely a good idea but an evolutionary necessity. To accomplish this may require new forms of social community: emerging micro-communities; transit-orientated communities; garden cities; eco-cities, etc. This could foster a new sense of contracted and coherent communities to replace the alienation of large urbanized areas and suburban sprawl.

Urban life is increasingly out of balance with the needs of the people. This situation will be exacerbated when disruptive events impact the daily life of the urbanite. 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. As western societies, and their cities, have become increasingly complex, their supply infrastructures have likewise become increasingly complex, interdependent, and fragile. In these modern times, no event occurs in isolation as everything is connected to everything else; thus, everything matters. As most major cities go, life is comfortable within the home, yet moving around within the city offers less and less pleasure, safety, and comfort. As civil unrest manifests, as it is almost certain it will, major European cities will see bouts of violence, disorder, and potential chaos. Perhaps even some areas will become ‘no-go’ zones (as they already exist in some US and South American cities, for example). It is necessary then to address the issue of creating more sustainable social living zones. Until now, too much effort has been placed into creating suburban sprawls that alienate the community; families are either boxed-in their homes or boxed-in the iron-cage of the car. The rise of suburban living has been described as ‘best understood as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world’.

It is important then 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. This has influenced the creation, in 2001, of the Charter of the New Urbanism, which states that:
We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.

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.

Likewise, Principles of Intelligent Urbanism (PIU) is a theory of urban planning that aims to integrate various environmental, technological, socio-cultural, and mobility needs into urban design. As put forward by architect Christopher Charles Benninger in 2001, PIU works towards maximising human interaction, public spaces and movement, and environmental sustainability. A similar movement has been gaining momentum within the UK and which specifically aims to transform smaller towns into sustainable communities.

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. The ‘Transition Town’ network, in its mission statement, aims to
inspire, inform, support and train communities as they consider, adopt and implement a Transition Initiative. We’re building a range of materials, training courses, events, tools and techniques, resources and a general support capability to help these communities…We’re hoping that through this work, communities across the UK will unleash their own collective genius and embark on an imaginative and practical range of connected initiatives, leading to a way of life that is more resilient, more fulfilling and more equitable, and that has dramatically lower levels of carbon emissions.

The ‘Transition Towns’ movement aims to raise awareness by giving talks and screening films in various towns and villages. One of their creative projects has been the introduction of a local currency (such as the ‘Totnes pounds’) that can only be spent in local shops. The move to local currencies is also on the increase in various towns across the US as a way to revitalize local businesses in the wake of the global financial crisis. Representatives of the transition town movement have also conducted ‘oil vulnerability auditing workshops’ with local businesses to see how they can reduce their reliance on oil. Other local projects set up under the scheme include running workshops on growing fruit and vegetables, bread-baking and sock-darning. So far there are over thirty towns and cities in England signed up to a ‘Transition Town’ plan, with others in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. Schemes such as this, and others similar, are on the increase in communities all over the world. People are reading the signs and becoming motivated and inspired. The writing is, as they say, already on the wall; and as more people get this ‘gut feeling’ there will be more and more alternative community projects arising. It is essential that in these times people – individually and collectively – start to take power back into their own hands. The creative energies residing within the human network has been either ignored or under-used for far too long. People need to take the initiative as familiar structures around begin to fail and dissolve. The opposite, doing nothing and weeping for sorrow or in despair, will do nobody any good. We are being encouraged (or pushed) to show ourselves how wonderfully resilient, resourceful, and creative we can really be. Many of us may be surprised at what can be achieved when a group of motivated people join together. To quote again the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: ‘A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’.

For now the transition town initiative is largely restricted to smaller towns, where civic engagement and localised sustainable practices from the bottom-up have some chance of success. However, the same model could work in larger cities if they split into smaller scale sustainable neighbourhoods.


King of the Paupers said...

Kingsley: "One of their creative projects has been the introduction of a local currency (such as the ‘Totnes pounds’) that can only be spent in local shops. The move to local currencies is also on the increase in various towns across the US as a way to revitalize local businesses in the wake of the global financial crisis."
Jct: Just because there is always enough local currency doesn't mean it can't be used elsewhere. Ithaca Hours are accepted throughout the region. In 1999, I paid for 39/40 nights in Europe with a timebank IOU for a night back in Canada worth 5 Hours so I'd take 5 Ithaca Hours for a night in Canada without creating shortage in Ithaca. Yes, there is always enough, but no, not because it can only be spent locally, it's good locally and globally.

Kingsley said...

Many thanks for the comment. It's useful to know about such expanded networks of local currencies. I appreciate the info!