Community Power and the Triple Crisis of the New Decade – Part 1:
The Climate

January 20, 2020   By Adam Lent, Director, NLGN

Climate Change

Adam Lent argues that our intensifying climate crisis requires a political, economic and cultural revolution rooted in the empowerment of communities.

@adamjlent

We enter this new decade in the grip of a triple crisis: of climate, of economic inequality and of political legitimacy. Currently our political leaders in the UK and across the world seem unable to confront any of these crises effectively. That should worry us all, for without resolution, the 2020s will be incalculably grimmer than the 2010s.

The origins of these closely interwoven crises are multiple and historical but I believe that the solution to all three can be found, in considerable part, in community power. This is the first in a series of blog posts investigating that claim; it will look at the climate crisis with economic inequality and political legitimacy to follow in later blogs.

For those unsure of what I mean by community power, I have provided a definition at the end of the post. I may well develop these blog posts into a paper so comments via social media (Twitter and LinkedIin) are very welcome at this early stage of thinking.

Climate and Community Power

The Australian bushfires and Indonesian floods have starkly illustrated how the world is now entering a much more dangerous phase of climate change. It is rapidly becoming clear that radical action needs to be taken to both mitigate future avoidable climate change and respond to the effects of climate change that are already underway. The empowering of local communities must be a key part of that action. Three areas are particularly relevant:

  • building community resilience to the unavoidable impacts of climate change;
  • developing a greener economy based on local trading networks;
  • and shifting our national culture away from consumerism and towards community.

Building Resilience to Unavoidable Climate Change

Adaptation to climate change has long played second fiddle to the higher profile efforts at mitigation. That has been changing recently but the Australian experience will inevitably ramp up public concern as well as government efforts to prepare for crisis in countries across the world.

In short, the realistic message must be: climate change is happening and some of its effects are inescapable. So how do we cope? Discussions about adaptation tend to focus on issues like flood defence, emergency planning and protection against new pests and diseases. As research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed, very little coherent attention has been paid to building resilience within the culture, mindsets and behaviour of local communities ahead of the disruption and distress which will be caused by climate change.

This is clearly a very significant oversight. Communities with strong social networks, established local organisations and a strong sense of agency are, self-evidently, better placed to prepare for disruption and recover from it when it occurs (the JRF research contains a good set of case studies).

By contrast, communities without these features would seem more likely to suffer deeper and longer-term damage and to face division and possibly civil disorder in the face of crisis. And we should be clear that the type of disruption likely to occur is not restricted to extreme weather events. It will also include longer-term challenges to economic well-being, public health and food and water systems. These will require an ongoing and profound community response.

As we explained in The Community Paradigm, the key to getting communities to develop strong networks, organisations and a sense of agency is to hand over significant amounts of the power and money currently hoarded by the state. It also means dedicating considerable time and resource to building the capabilities within communities necessary for greater self-governance. That means a fundamental shift in the mindset of central and local government, which have spent the last seven decades thinking almost entirely in terms of empowering large public and private sector institutions rather than communities.

More Local Trading

Around 60% of the UK’s GDP is generated through international trade. Half of our food (by value) is imported, with a particularly high reliance on fresh fruit and vegetables from abroad. This poses two major challenges in the light of an emerging climate crisis.

Firstly, global trade is one of the major causes of CO2 emissions. This is true not just of the CO2 released when manufacturing goods for trade but also in the transportation of goods across the world. Freight transport accounts for around one third of all transport-related emissions and 7% of all emissions. However, some goods are far bigger emitters through transportation than others, with vehicles, electronics and other manufactured goods producing the most CO2. These are all goods which are very high on the list of UK exports and imports. In addition, many of the most important products for UK international trade are themselves major contributors to climate change emissions: vehicles, power generators, aircraft and oil. And contrary to popular opinion, twice as much of our business with the rest of the world is the result of trade in goods rather than services.

Secondly, it is highly likely that global trading networks will be disrupted by climate change in the coming years. A recent report from Chatham House revealed, for example, that the global food distribution network was increasingly vulnerable to disruption from climate change. 80% of global trade by volume is carried by sea but there is widespread acknowledgement that ports across the world are poorly adapted to deal with extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

None of this bodes well for a highly ‘open’ economy like the UK’s. For decades, economic policy in the UK has been focused on driving growth through tying the country into expanding global networks of trade and finance. Little or no effort has been put into guaranteeing what is now, arguably, a much more pressing imperative: ensuring economic resilience in the face of climate disruption and reducing our contribution to emissions.

Any shift in that direction must involve a greater emphasis on establishing more local trading networks. These will be less vulnerable to disruption to international trade and will contribute far less to emissions than global and national transport networks. In addition, unlike international trading systems which, as the Chatham House research shows, could face systemic and global crisis due to reliance on narrow transport ‘chokepoints’, damage to one or even a number of local trading networks would be less likely to have a catastrophic effect on other local networks.

Admittedly, this would be a radical change in the trajectory of both economic policy and the economy itself. It would require the devolution of many economic powers held by central government, the establishment of a tax and incentives system that overwhelmingly favours locally focussed SMEs rather than multinational corporations and the active stimulation of local markets through infrastructure and skills investment. In effect, it would be giving local communities the power and resource to gain control of their own economies.

That sense of community empowerment is vital. If the creation of green local economies is treated as a purely top-down, technocratic affair delivered by untrusted institutions, it will fall flat. Indeed, it may well lead to outright opposition as even a limited withdrawal from international trading and the stimulation of local economies will disrupt labour markets and challenge consumer expectations.

The key to avoiding that is ensuring the transition from one type of economy to another is owned by local communities themselves. Their direct engagement in the establishment of local economic plans, decisions over financing and the oversight of delivery must be intensive and ongoing. That will not only ensure popular buy-in but will also create the necessary local intelligence and community energy to actually establish the businesses and markets that will form the backbone of a new, more resilient economy.

Encouraging Community, Discouraging Consumerism

The cultural bedfellow of the massive growth in international trade in recent decades has been consumerism. Ultimately what has fuelled the growing global economy is the willingness of people to buy lots of stuff. And the UK seems particularly susceptible to the consumerist route to economic growth. The country has the fourth highest consumer spending as a proportion of GDP in the 36 OECD countries. It also has one of the highest ratios of household debt to income. There are certainly a number of reasons behind those statistics but a strong culture of consumerism and debt financing must be an important element.

This consumerist culture is clearly unsustainable in a world facing climate crisis. Even in the extremely unlikely event of all CO2 emissions being rapidly stripped out of the global trade that feeds consumers’ insatiable appetites, the unending purchase of commodities is doing incalculable damage to our fellow species, ecosystems and ourselves in a variety of other ways, including the release of numerous toxins and depletion of vital resources.

In a liberal democracy, it is clearly not acceptable to limit consumption by statute so the question arises of how people may be encouraged to stop buying so many things voluntarily.

The environmental movement tends to take a negative approach, emphasising the risks of not doing so. This has its value but overlooks the extent to which consumer culture is sustained by powerful notions of self-worth. Many millions of individuals assess their own success and status in terms of what they earn, spend and own. To promote a voluntary shift away from consumerism, an alternative version of self-worth needs to emerge. If that gains popular traction then there will be a genuinely positive incentive for people to ditch consumerism.

There are a multitude of other ways of measuring self-worth which have no impact on our environment: number and intensity of friendships, degree of spiritual development, artistic endeavour, sporting prowess and so on. Another is the extent of an individual’s commitment to local community improvement. Given the need to establish community resilience and local trading outlined above, this seems a particularly important alternative way of developing self-worth and status. As such, our national culture would shift away from assessing ourselves and others in terms of what we earn and spend and towards the extent to which we add to the cultural, social, political and economic vibrancy of our community.

Over time, hopefully, our tendency to heap praise and awards on the globe-trotting billionaire, the international fashion icon and the super-rich tech founder will seem as outdated and vulgar as the Roman deification of its most brutal generals. We would look instead to the locally-minded entrepreneur, the neighbourhood activist, the community leader as the models to emulate. The measure of individuals will be found far less in what they earn and own and far more in how many neighbours they sustain and help through their work and their volunteering.

This may sound absurdly high-minded but then pretty much any alternative model of self-worth sounds high-minded when contrasted with the superficiality of our hyper-consumerist world. In truth, this community spirit notion is far less testing or austere than the unquestioned fealty to a local landowner, religious devotion or the martial duty which shaped self-worth for centuries before the arrival of the industrial age.

Mass cultural shifts of this sort do not occur in a vacuum. They emerge as part of a complex confluence of negative and positive incentives alongside behaviour modelling by influential individuals. Transferring power and resource from institutions to communities is an important part of this process. It sends out a clear message that community activism is highly valued and it allows those who are already living a community-focused life to expand their influence and status. The alternative is for government to simply exhort people to take up a new sense of self-worth – an approach that seems destined to failure given the sheer resource poured every day into promoting the consumerist culture and, as will be discussed in a future post, given the lack of popular legitimacy the state currently enjoys.

Conclusion: Community Power Versus Climate Authoritarianism

Developing this strong community power response to climate crisis is a vital democratic alternative to the growth of authoritarianism. There has long been a fear that some environmental campaigners favour the use of extreme state power to force necessary climate action. In reality, that perspective has always been a very minority view if it has really existed at all. But I believe a new more potent form of green authoritarianism could soon be on the rise.

To date the authoritarian right has tended to focus on denying climate change. However, as that position becomes increasingly untenable and as climate disruption worsens, it is highly likely that right-wing populists will use the chaos and fear generated by climate change to enhance state power and undermine democracy and civil rights. The space for them to make the case that the climate disorder needs ‘strong’ government will expand and the opportunities to cynically exploit states of emergency, the civil use of the military and increased migration will grow considerably.

That need not be the future if the effort is made now to both think through and implement the sort of community power response to climate crisis outlined here. That is work we plan to do intensively and urgently over the coming months at NLGN as time is, most definitely, not on our side.

Addenda: What is Community Power?

Community Power can be summed up as follows:

  • Local communities are far better placed to identify and resolve the challenges they face than big private or public sector institutions.
  • As such local communities can make more effective use of the power and money currently controlled by large state and private institutions and should therefore have much greater control of at least some of that power and resource.
  • This means central and local government and the wider public sector ceding control of power and money to neighbourhoods, community organisations, networks of service users and a number of other community bodies through methods such as deliberative democracy, new governance models, new forms of frontline public service delivery and institutional culture change;
  • It also means large corporations playing less of a role in local areas in favour of SMEs, community businesses and co-operatives.