The recently abolished Sustainable Development Commission held a launch event for their report on empowering communities to improve their neighbourhoods a few weeks ago. I went along because I needed some convincing to support the Big Society concept and how it might work for sustainability. I’m not at all convinced, but after some time to reflect over my summer holiday I think I’m finally able to put my thoughts into words. Many planners and sustainability professionals will agree that community groups are more likely to form and raise their voice on issues they oppose, rather than organising themselves to build schools and local energy schemes.
Phillip Blond, Director of ResPublica, spoke at the SDC launch event about the ‘increasingly fragmented’ nature of our society and how people are not associating. He spoke about how it’s problematic to get people to form groups on lots of separate issues like crime and health because it leads to disaggregated communities. Not everybody in the audience agreed with this but I found it very thought provoking. In terms of the environment, he said that climate change is the only topic on the environment agenda, but people just don’t get it. Carbon is invisible: “have you ever seen any?” he questioned the audience. Blond encouraged us to help communities begin to engage with climate change by helping them make their places pretty – getting them to plant trees and flowers for example.
Personally I think it’s a real shame if we have to approach a problem as catastrophic as climate change with a dumbed down appeal to making places pretty. But Blond has a point. Nobody (beyond a few treehuggers like me) is engaging with the climate change agenda because they agree with the fundamentals of environmentalism. The businesses and politicians that are engaged are more concerned about the ‘green economy’, job creation and perhaps energy security. Their rhetoric doesn’t generally mention biodiversity and loss of species as a reason why we shouldn’t carry on with business as usual. But maybe that’s fine. Most people don’t factor the environmental impact of their actions into the simple heuristics they employ to make decisions. If we can present them with a choice that will be positive for the environment and helps them achieve a personally relevant goal (like saving money) than we’re a lot more likely to get results. And that was Blond’s point. Find something that people actually care about (money, jobs, family, nice home) and allow them to engage through those drivers rather than saving the polar bears.
I’m currently developing a joint project with PAS and the LG Improvement and Development Environment Team that will do just that. It’s a resource on sustainable energy technologies that will help councillors and senior managers in local government understand why renewable or decentralised energy is worth developing in their community. It will give the same information to community groups if they’re interested in putting an energy scheme together. We want to make the decision about renewable and decentralised energy easy by spelling out the actual costs and benefits. As RichardPrichard said, “It’s all about the Benjamins”.*
Sustainable Development Commission report: The Future is Local: Empowering communities to improve their neighbourhoods
Phillip Blond on the ResPublica website. (Those of you interested in John Seddon’s work might be interested to know that Blond mentioned a project he’s working on with Seddon. My notes from the evening aren’t that clear but it has something to do with: ‘economies of scale aren’t real’.)
*Just in case this doesn’t translate: Benjamins is slang for money because Benjamin Franklin is pictured on the US hundred dollar bill.