Small-Scale Sustainable Communities: The Key to the Next Social (R)evolution

This article marks the first in the author’s series on Sustainable Communities, in which she investigates theories and examples of how we might organize ourselves toward sustainability.  This introductory article examines why it is crucial to focus on the viability of sustainable community prototypes, the likes of which are popping up in both urban and rural settings across the world.  Such efforts look humble and localized at first, but they may contribute more to the structural evolution of a global sustainable society than it seems.

From a humble sprout, a fragile orchid grows.  Not all of the seeds of its parent plant were pollinated.  Not all were strewn, and not all began to grow.  Some did.  Of those that did, one blossomed.  The orchid blossomed, a realized vision of the parent orchid’s design.

Not all efforts toward organizing ourselves for a better future have blossomed.  Communism fell to the stresses of maintaining an absolutist ideology among many individuals.  At this moment in our very own country, capitalism is finally beginning to buckle beneath its own design oversights (infinite growth within a finite planet).  If one examines the human political legacy, it seems that there never will be a final, best solution to our social woes.

But there may be an evolution.

Totalitarianism is better than a monarchy.  Representative democracy is an improvement over a totalitarian society.  Direct democracy is probably even better than representative democracy.  Having civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights satisfied feels much better than widespread injustice.  The only exception here may be class stratification in the U.S., which is apparently justified by the fundamental theory of our economic system.

But maybe capitalism is on its way out too.  New Scientist magazine features in its October 18 2008 issue a section of a half-dozen contributors, entitled “The Folly of Growth: How to stop the economy killing the planet“–which contains a thorough picture of the frankly unpalatable situation we’re in, and yet how appealing alternatives to U.S. capitalism seem.  Tim Jackson’s article “Why Politicians Dare Not Limit Economic Growth” speculates about the social worth of pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into floundering corporations when social trends and urgent environmental trends indicate that the money would be best spent otherwise–such as on the sincere development of green jobs or industry standards and incentives to proactively bring our greenhouse gas emissions within manageable levels (the famous “350” movement).  According to a chart in Bill McKibben’s article “The Most Important Number on Earth” (Mother Jones, November 2008), it would take just $33 billion to update our major energy providers, reducing our carbon emissions by almost 20% annually.  “Just $33 billion” is not a phrase I would have imagined myself saying, prior to the Wall Street bailout. 

Government seems intent on doing everything it can–with its cash, clout or military–to keep things “status quo” for the elite class of wealthy and smart businesspeople.  Businesspeople, of course, are also in the business of protecting their interests–which is why you are bombarded with commercials for razors, flat screen TVs and diamond necklaces this holiday season, instead of what Herman Daly “says is the most critical message we need to spread if we are to stem our environmental catastrophe: “consume less.”

If we cannot rely on governments, nor the corporations which provide our goods, nor even the very system on which we base our livelihood (the exchange of money) to actually provide for either our direct needs or our long-term, ecological needs… then what’s the harm in looking for a better system?

The potential benefits are beginning to outweigh the risks.

I have seen firsthand in my city the amazing potential of small-scale, community-based projects to provide models for a possible global organization that actually affirms rather than denies our current scientific understanding of our dire environmental situation and what steps must be taken.  These “proto-communities” strive to interrupt the harmful systems that our society today perpetuates and replace them with alternatives, all while simultaneously attempting to meet the community’s immediate needs.

I am convinced, based on all of the research I’ve done into how sustainability can be successful, that the most promising field of development is not the top-down technology or the top-down intellectually-designed society–it is the grassroots community efforts to solve the problems we face using the people we have.  The solutions these groups develop, and build upon, may provide the crucial grounds for assembling a sustainable society.  What’s more, the economically-privileged classes in the United States provide the consumer base on which the entire world’s economy expands at the rate it does.  If these folks–if you and I–simply slowed and eventually stopped our money-based consumption and innovated person-to-person, city-to-city alternatives, then automatically, systems that progressively concentrate power (like money) would become devalued… and our livelihoods would be intimately caught up in the success of one another–a design that may change according to needs, but would not self-destruct.

It is apparent that our society as it looks today, cannot go on forever.  We need a redo, a shift, a complete overhaul.  Sooner than later.

The overhaul won’t come from people concerned with maintaining their power and esteem.  It will come from you and me.  More importantly, it will come from us.

I’d like to use this space to highlight some of the remarkable visionaries, innovators, designers and engineers that are laboring on a better future in their garages, their backyards, and their neighborhoods.  You might live down the street from one of them.  And perhaps you might think of a way to plug in your vision with theirs.

Let the evolution begin.

photo credit: Hans Hillewaert under a Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 2.5 license (found on Wikimedia Commons)

  1. Robert

    This has been a question I have been pondering? What would it take to attract the masses to be green? More “green” than they are today.
    I am not convinced that the average Joe is sold on sustainability.
    You are right. It becomes a push from people like us to create more awareness.



  2. Evan Ravitz

    A CBS/NY Times poll in 1997 showed 65% wanted us to sign Kyoto, no matter what other countries did: http://vote.org/initiatives?q=node/1272

    Other examples of how people are way ahead of the govt:

    That’s why we need direct democracy as well as representative. Having national ballot initiatives would keep Congress in line, as they have in Switzerland since 1891.

    Checks and balances are good. So most people want direct AND representative democracy. Except politicians, the people who buy them, and the lobbyists between.

  3. ccpo

    Of course, Caroline, you are correct. I don’t mean to sound arrogant in stating this in a declarative sentence, I am simply acknowledging common sense.

    1. We start with the question: is unending growth possible? Answer: No. Growth eventually outstrips resources (Liebig Minimum) and our ability to innovate (Diamond and others). Collapse is a constant in all systems, eventually. A simple thought experiment suffices: is there any large-scale human society based in growth that is economically, politically and socially the same as it was 1k or 2k years ago? No. And how did they change? War. Revolution. Social collapse.

    Our next step is the stars, for the resources here are reaching depletion, and at the current rate some will within this generation. Can we get to the stars? Maybe. But not before this collapse occurs. If it is not a managed retreat, it will likely be many hundreds of years before we find the renewable energy technology that would allow it.

    2. Albert Bartlett teaches us we are no smarter than yeast. The analogy is of yeast in a bottle and the time frame an hour. Because of exponential growth, if 12:00 is the time at which the bottle becomes full and the colony dies off, then at 11:59 the bottle is only half full. The yeast have no idea they are about to commit suicide. Consider: Americans = 26 barrels of oil per year. Thus 6.7 billion x 26 = 6.8 YEARS of oil left. If every drop could actually be produced. If everyone lived like Europeans? 13 years. 1/5 of current US use? 35 years. That the world can have the American dream is a lie, pure and simple.

    3. Chaos/Complexity theory tells us the more complex a system, the vulnerable to collapse. #1 says collapse always happens with constant growth. The world has never been so complex and interconnected. The nature of the current economic meltdown should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind.

    4. Dunbar’s Number says the ideal community size is 150 in order to maintain meaningful social contact. We know when (potential) victims of war are humanized rather than objectified, the perpetrators are far less likely to attack. We know the only steady-state populations are small, aboriginal groups that a. control population, have little or no hierarchy and live sustainably on the land.

    5. Anthropological Climate Change (ACC) is moving far, far faster than most realize. (Methane hydrates) There are legitimate, serious scientists now worrying that up to 4C warming may come by the end of THIS century. Given the economic collapse happening now, how do we ameliorate that? Live simpler, starting immediately.

    6. Profit and power drive growth. The capitalistic paradigm must end. Usury must end. Fractional banking must end. Trade, honest and simple must be the new paradigm. And we have to learn to share without turning that into an insult by applying (largely considered to be) pejorative terms like socialism and communism to it.


    So, no, this isn’t rocket science. Anyone looking at the underlying realities should understand: small, sustainable, steady-state communities/economies is THE answer. This need not end innovation or scientific/technological achievement, but it does say we, as a species, need to be involved in the process and make choices together about what to develop and what not to, and it must be without regard for profit or power.


  4. ccpo


    I’ve looked into intentional communities and have come to this conclusion: they may work for some, but they create a social abstraction. Intentional communities, by definition, are looking for people like themselves. It’s essentially a well-intentioned clique. Now, different strokes for different folks, so for those that they work for, great. But imagine the chaos inherent in taking, say, 310,000,000 Americans and moving them all around and reorganizing them into intentional communities of 150 – 1,000 or so. Does this strike you as realistic? So, my initial excitement about them has dissipated because they quite simply are not what we must have: solutions that are globally reproducible.

    Thus, the relocalization movement is far more realistic for the general populace. Communities must try to agree on a new paradigm of localization, community-building, cooperation, steady state economics, renewable and sustainable practices, etc.

    What intentional communities might be excellent teaching communities/models, though. And what they really have to offer is the exemplar of egalitarian management, which we must have to prevent the return to the concentration of power and money that drives conflict and abuse. We know human nature is not perfect. Small, egalitarian communities help control the anti-social tendencies.

    Etc., etc.

    All of this IMHO, of course.


  5. SEE

    I think that Robert’s question, “What would it take to attract the masses to be green? More “green” than they are today?”, is the key and at the same time the biggest impediment to this issue. The fact is, most people just don’t care. As long as they can keep their thermostat on 72 degrees (those who live in houses with modern heating and cooling systems)and can continue to buy the “stuff” that makes them feel that their life is worthwhile, they aren’t going to be concerned about being more green or even consider the ultimate consequences of our consumerism.

    When will this change? It will change when the depletion of resources makes the current “first world” system a thing of the past. In other words, things will change because people will be forced by circumstances to adapt to the reality that the old way is history.

    That’s human nature. History has shown us time and time again that we humans do not learn from the mistakes and failures of past civilizations. I’m talking about the masses here.

    If Zogby or Gallup or some other such national polling organization were to conduct a poll asking a random sample of the population questions such as:

    What is an egalitarian community?

    What is the Kyoto Accord?

    etc, etc,

    a very small percentage of the population would be able to give the correct answers. They simply aren’t concerned about such things.

    Those of us who do care are a very small minority. The best that we can hope for is to try to make our own neighborhoods a better place to live and show people by example that there IS an alternative way of living, convincing folks one person at a time by example. For the masses, they won’t get it until they have no choice.

    Best Regards,


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