Cooperation, Community and Climate Change | OCCASIONAL PAPER

Building better relationships is the key to action

Download the paper Cooperation, Community and Climate Change: Better relationships are the key to successful action

The future looks grim

World leaders recently assembled in Copenhagen to try to decide how to prevent the looming disaster of climate change. The unanimous view of scientists qualified to judge is that radical global action is vital.

The failure of the world’s governments to agree on firm and adequate commitments to address the dire threat posed by climate change means that a major rethink is necessary, and it may require basic changes to the way we live – in unexpected areas of our lives. This failure is not surprising, and is symptomatic of the fact that the world’s peoples and their leaders lack the commitment needed to make the necessary changes.

Many people don’t believe the climate is changing, or don’t believe that this is caused by human activity. Others accept that we are altering the climate, but their beliefs are not sufficiently backed by their actions. And with an eye to such public responses, politicians are wary of taking radical measures that may be unpopular with voters. While some see this as weakness, politicians can justifiably reply that they’re not able to do anything unless they are put or kept in power by the electorate.

If this state of affairs continues, industrialised societies – the  quarter of the world’s population responsible for three-quarters of the greenhouse gases to date – will not cut back sufficiently, while the rest of the world, which legitimately wants to meet the basic needs of its peoples, will by and large continue to copy Western modes of unsustainable development. The future looks grim indeed.

At the same time, extensive research is showing that, once our basic material needs are satisfied, economic growth and increasing material consumption do not make us any happier.[1] In many ways they do the reverse, as well as contributing, not only to  climate change, but to resource depletion and other environmental damage.

Thus, our way of living continues to grow increasingly  unsustainable.

What is to be done?

While it’s absolutely necessary for governments, community organisations, businesses and citizens to continue to promote, institute and practise measures that specifically reduce greenhouse gas production, this approach is highly unlikely to be sufficient by itself. What we need, I believe, is a cultural change in the way we live, a change that centres on the building of sound relationships in every sphere of our lives. This may sound rather utopian, and also somewhat disconnected from the task of reducing greenhouse gases. But it is neither. There are proven practical steps we can take to move towards such a society, and doing so would provide the necessary motivation and social cohesion to enable us to live differently on and with this planet. These steps may take time to bear fruit, but this is all the more reason to begin them as soon as possible. We can’t fall into the trap of delaying them because they are too big.

A relationship-focused society would consist of communities that are more equal, communities that have more self-reliant and service-based economies, communities in which people are well-connected and engaged in satisfying activities, communities that enable all their members – including those currently marginalised – to both meet their own needs and contribute to the needs of others. In such a society, people would work together more effectively and efficiently to meet practical needs without wasting resources, but they would derive their principal satisfaction from sound relationships, enriching activities and contributions to others. There would still be governments, businesses, markets, community groups and all the other organisational paraphernalia that we are familiar with, but they would function quite differently.

The retreat from civic engagement into subcultures

So why are all these changes necessary to solve the problem of climate change? Well, to answer that we need to consider for a moment certain aspects of our current societies (and in this paper I will focus on developed societies). The nature of our involvement in the world outside our private lives is changing. We are less likely to be involved in organisations like mainstream churches, trade-unions and political parties, we have less faith in established political institutions, and in countries where voting is voluntary we may be less likely to vote.[2]

Some, like political scientist, Robert Putnam, argue that there has been a wholesale retreat from ‘civic engagement’, with fewer people participating in organisations and political activities of any kind, but his argument applies principally to the US,[3] and others challenge his view. They contend that people are simply involved in different kinds of groups and activities.[4] Most of these new groups and activities focus on single issues, and bring together people with similar interests who thus constitute fairly homogeneous groups. Such groups are also less likely to be locality-based.

Our increasing involvement in specific-issue groups and activities that are not locality- based mirrors other changes in our lives. We are more likely to work, shop and engage in social and leisure activities further from our home, and even over the internet, and as a result we have fewer interactions with our neighbours. Thus we now have unprecedented capacity to control whom we interact with, and more often than not we choose to mix with people like ourselves in a more heterogeneous world, in which we are less likely to accept models and sources of authority outside our group. This tendency gives rise to subcultures – virtual societies in which people spend most of their lives avoiding anything more than peripheral contact with those who are not like us, for example, fellow Goths, petrol-heads, futures traders or inner-suburban lefties.

With such niche connections with people like ourselves, it is quite possible to be unaware of, or to simply ignore, pressure from elsewhere to change our behaviour in the broader public interest. We don’t seek to please those outside our group, or worry about their displeasure. Unless our niche group is political in character, politics and public issues just exist as faint background noise. There’s likely to be little sense of what political action has achieved for the world, and little faith in politicians.[5]

Moreover, solutions to life’s dissatisfactions are in most cases pursued simply through individual lifestyle choices: changing jobs, getting a bigger house, buying a four-wheel drive, dressing differently, joining a gym. Such solutions leave collective social problems unsolved and may exacerbate climate change if they involve increased consumption of material resources.

Those of us interested in politics and social change are also likely to be mixing with people like ourselves, and as a result we may over-estimate the level of interest in these things within the general community. In this respect it can be salutary to spend time with relatives who are not like us, to scan the magazine stands in a mainstream store, or to check the ratings for different kinds of TV and radio programs. We soon realise how many people are basically apolitical and uninterested in public issues. The following tables, from a 2004 study of interest and engagement in politics in Victoria illustrate this:

Table 1: Victorians’ Political
Activities, 2004 Federal Election
Discussed politics with others Talk to people about vote Work for party / candidate Go to meetings or rallies Contribute money
Frequently 19.4% 2.9% 3.6% 1.3% 2.1%
Occasionally 45.8% 11.9% 3.6% 1.5% 1.7%
Rarely 23.9% 18.7% 10% 4.6% 2.5%
Not at all 10.9% 66.5% 82.8% 92.6% 93.7%
Table 2: Victorians’ Political
Activities, Past Five Years
Contact official Protest / march Work with like others Signed written petition Signed electronic petition
Yes 25.7% 15.5% 20% 51.6% 10.6%
No 74.3% 84.5% 80% 48.4% 89.4%

Source: McAllister, I, 2004, Australian Electoral Study

Those of us who are interested in public issues may be as strongly influenced in our deliberations by the Old Testament, Oprah Winfrey, Alan Jones or Nostradamus as by a politician or a solid piece of research. Or we may simply ease our consciences by, for example, making a small donation, buying a badge, or being a bit more diligent about recycling, while our overall contribution to the problem in question remains substantially unchanged. In such circumstances, what hope is there for a committed, united, effective shift in the way we live our lives and run our political and economic systems, in order to avert serious climate change?

A new kind of threat

On top of this, the threat we face from climate change is of an entirely different kind to other threats humanity has faced. Previous major threats have been visible and familiar: war, famine, flood, disease, crime, economic depression. People could usually see the cause of the problem, or if they couldn’t – as with disease and depression – they could certainly see the consequences. Moreover, such problems have been around for long enough for responses to them to be ‘hard-wired’ into our cultures (even if these responses have not always been very effective).

Then along comes climate change, in which neither the causes nor the consequences are directly evident to the average person. Certainly there is melting ice as well as prolonged droughts and increased storm activity, but the sceptics’ claim that this is within normal long-term climate variations is hard for the average person to refute based on his or her personal experience.

In addition, unlike any previous problem, there is no relationship at all between a person’s action to avert the problem of climate change, and their subsequent experience of the consequences of the problem, relative to consequences experienced by others. In other words, everyone experiences the consequences of climate change, irrespective of what they have each done to prevent it. So in this case there is no such thing as a self-interested motivation to act (unless we are talking about the self-interest of the whole of humanity). It’s possible to be a ‘free rider’ and benefit from everyone else’s changes while making few or none ourselves.

Thus there are three issues. First, our societies are too internally divided to come to a shared conclusion that there is a serious problem and to put into action a coordinated and sufficient  response; second, the problem is new and its causes and consequences cannot be directly seen; and third, individuals and societies that do act on climate change are not subsequently less affected by it than those that don’t. Let’s look at further aspects of the first issue.

The effect of societal divides on the climate change debate

As already mentioned, many don’t believe in climate change, or at least in its human agency. This is part of a more general phenomenon, namely, the lack of common ground across the population on the questions of how truth is determined, and which authorities should be respected and believed – common ground which is necessary to arrive at broadly accepted ways forward. There are three main groups urging action on climate change: climate scientists, green activists, and some politicians. If we look at how these groups are viewed by different sectors of the population we see the following.

Conservatives, particularly the religious right, see scientists as part of the liberal, secular establishment (and of course in the US this is closely linked to the debate over evolution versus creationism). Many on the left or among the counterculture, on the other hand, see scientists as coldly rational, reductionist and deeply implicated in the creation of destructive technologies. And across the population there are perceptions that research can be used to prove or disprove anything, that the scientists may be grandstanding, and that their predictions in the past have often been wrong. The second group, environmental activists, only have credibility among those who already believe in environmentalism, which very roughly equates to those to the left of centre[6]. Others see them as extreme, misguided, or simply left-wingers in another guise. With regard to the third group, politicians across the spectrum (with the exception of the US, and now the Australian, right) are now calling for action on climate change, but far fewer people now respect politicians or see them as authorities on the truth.

On top of this, the media give time to those denying the existence of human-created global warming to an extent that is out of all proportion to the incidence of deniers among those who are informed on the subject. There are various reasons why they do this: to meet statutory requirements about ‘balanced’ coverage, to generate an interesting controversy and thereby increase audience share, to please commercial allies threatened by measures to curb climate change, or simply to pursue an ideological agenda.

While it’s legitimate to have public debate about any matter on which mainstream opinion is divided, the circumstances of this debate are most unfortunate. There’s virtual unanimity among those qualified to judge that human-generated climate change is real, but the technical complexity of the subject, the nature of media coverage and the agendas of climate change deniers obscure this fact. The recent revelation of emails from the University of East Anglia has certainly been a gift to the deniers, although this concerns only a small fraction of the huge body of evidence substantiating climate change, and popular interpretations of the meaning of these emails are probably quite erroneous. There’s an urgent need for climate scientists to conduct more dialogues with people who can in turn talk with others in a variety of forums, in order to achieve a more informed public view, especially in the population’s ‘middle ground’.

Proposing a course of action

In the face of all the challenges so far discussed, what is needed is a course of action that embodies the following:

  • We must continue to promote greater understanding of the issue and try to put in place the technical changes necessary to achieve greenhouse gas reductions  (non-carbon-based energy sources, better insulated  buildings, more public transport, reversal of deforestation, putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions and so on).
  • But we should do this in the context of promoting ways of living that are also much more satisfying than the  existing unsustainable ones (which is especially important given the free rider problem endemic in action on climate change).
  • Finally – and this is my main point – these new more  satisfying ways of living need to generate more  connected, cohesive societies – societies more  capable of pursuing common goals based on shared values and beliefs and concern for one another.

A few comments about timing and sequencing are in order here. It might be assumed from the thread of the argument so far that it would be necessary to achieve a more cohesive, united society before the other changes could be attempted, but this is not the case, for two reasons.

Firstly, public discussion of measures to combat global warming canvasses changes over the next 30 to 40 years, and so a lot of the changes will be incremental or cumulative. Even when changes are sudden, the process of governments and citizens continuing to support and practise them is necessarily an ongoing one. Thus, it is not a question of people just having one-off motivation to support the necessary changes. It is a continuous process, and over time other changes – in the form of increased social cohesion and more satisfying lives – can provide the necessary reinforcement of initial motivation.

Secondly, pursuit of the above principles can’t be sequenced because most of the measures I will discuss below do not conform to just one of these principles. Many, perhaps most of them, conform to all three at the same time. This in fact is the beauty of them.

Before listing and explaining the measures, let me state some further conditions that they need to conform to:

  • They should cause as little pain as possible to the affected sectors of the community;
  • They should preferably be cost neutral over time;
  • It also helps if they can be trialled and researched so that their efficacy (or otherwise) can be established; and
  • They need to be presented as being part of a clear, coherent vision, so that they don’t come across as just acollection of changes that are unconnected and therefore possibly arbitrary.

Here, then, are the measures I believe must be taken, grouped into three broad categories.

Reducing Inequality

Inequality exacerbates climate change in three ways.

  • First, it fuels the desire to continually increase wealth and consumption. What a person earns, owns and consumes, relative to what others earn, own and consume, becomes the measure of sufficiency, success and personal worth. But because it is relative and competitive, people can’t be satisfied for long because others keep leap-frogging them, and so they must do the same.[7]
    As well, for those at the bottom of the pile economic growth becomes a substitute for equality because it offers hope that they will eventually get their basic needs met[8] and that they might even become the next successful entrepreneur (despite the fact that less equal societies also tend to have less social mobility[9]).
    While economic growth can reduce the proportion of the population in poverty, it does not always do so – witness the US in the past few decades[10] – and when it does it also allows the well-off to further increase their own consumption, with all its environmental costs.
  • Second, inequality is socially divisive and thus reduces the potential for cooperative, society-wide action to combat climate change or address any other public issue.[11]
    The poor may resent the rich, while the rich often disparage the poor to justify their own privilege. The lives of the rich and poor are so separate and different – with different neighbourhoods, schools, work environments, transport and leisure outlets – that they have little  understanding of or empathy for each other, and they see few issues on which they share a stake in cooperating. This means, among other things, that workplaces are much less cooperative environments than they might otherwise be, and are thus also less efficient. It may also exacerbate tax evasion[12] – as the rich have little sense of a common good to which they want to contribute – and this in turn leads to yet more wasteful private consumption.
  • Third, because inequality reduces the chances that the needs of the poor will be met through either markets or government action, a range of major social problems are created and not solved, and this means huge costs for society in the long run. For example, it costs much more to keep people homeless than to give them homes, because a great deal must be spent on policing, prisons, hospital care and other consequences.[13]
    But homelessness is just one of a range of issues, including substance abuse, mental illness, unemployment, family dysfunction and isolation, which often afflict the same people and cost society dearly if they are not solved.[14]
    This means that society’s physical and human resources are being either wasted or diverted into patching up problems that could have been prevented in the first place at much less resource cost. These issues – especially when they are seen to impinge upon the rest of society in the
    form, for example, of crime, substance abuse or welfare costs – can also have the effect of crowding environmental issues off public and political agendas.

There is evidence that more equal societies have a better  environmental record. Recycling rates can be considered a good indicator of citizens’ environmental concern and behaviour, and these are higher in more equal societies. [15] As well, there is strong evidence that such societies are happier, healthier, more trusting and more public-spirited.[16]
So, if the aim is to generate better, more satisfying societies while at the same time preserving the environment, then the evidence is on the table. The research even shows that the more well-off members of comparatively equal societies are better-off – in terms of specific indicators of wellbeing – than their well-off counterparts in less equal societies.[17]

But isn’t inequality necessary to stimulate economic performance? While there are countless theoretical justifications for equality, the fact is that at neither the national level nor the firm level is there evidence that greater inequality leads to better economic performance. Highly equal societies like the Scandinavian countries
perform as well as the much less equal Americans.[18]
And executive pay levels do not correlate with company performance.[19]
Moreover, while inequality cannot be eliminated, its extent varies
significantly from country to country, and within any one country it can change, suddenly or over time. For example, in 1932 the Swedes began a radical shift from being a conservative, hierarchical society to being one of the most equal in the world, and in the first eighty years of the twentieth century most industrialised societies became more equal through measures such as progressive
taxation and public provision of housing, healthcare, education, income support and other benefits.

Most of the measures that can increase equality hardly need mentioning because they have been widely canvassed: more progressive income tax; taxes on unearned income, inheritance and wealth; more centralised wage fixation, with the case for equality being argued by the state; adequate provision of housing, healthcare and other vital services; rigorous attention to the task of ensuring that everyone gets a decent education, whatever their background or troubles along the way, and ensuring that this dovetails into employment; and help to generate employment and enterprises, especially in disadvantaged areas.
It’s also vital to assist young children and their parents – especially those that are struggling – as these are the critical years for a child’s intellectual and emotional development, and also the years when parents are most open to getting involved in community. Changes in the workplace, such as involving staff in ownership and decision-making, can enhance equality, and this is discussed in a later section.

One measure to reduce equality that receives insufficient attention is investment in those with debilitating issues in their lives. These include long-term unemployment, substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness or a criminal history. There have been many failures in efforts to assist those experiencing such issues, for several reasons:

  • First, with our ‘siloed’ community services, the provision of the different kinds of help required – for example, healthcare, education, housing and counselling – is often patchy and uncoordinated, with different services being made available at very different locations and not necessarily at the same time, inconsistent goals and styles, and no-one to coordinate the process. The clients, who may be struggling just to do basic daily tasks, often can’t cope with this, drop out and revert to old problematic behaviour, and it’s likely that no-one has the responsibility to try and involve them again.
  • Second, a ‘deficit-based’ approach is often adopted, one that views such people as a collection of problems or deficits that need to be fixed up with services and facilities, rather than as people with actual or potential strengths or gifts that can be developed in order to allow them to
    contribute to the wellbeing of themselves and others. This can leave them in a state of unproductive and unsatisfying dependency.[20]
  • Third, they may be given assistance that is too brief and cursory and then be expected to survive in the wider world. People with complex physical, social, psychological and financial problems often need long-term, staged assistance, and they may always need some level of support. For example, employment assistance often fails because the long-term unemployed do a short program and are then expected to get and keep a job in the open market. There are many people who are unlikely to succeed in open employment, but nevertheless have much to contribute in a more supported employment environment. We need to shape social institutions and practices to suit people’s capacities and limitations, rather than simply expecting them to ‘shape up’.

In advocating greater equality, therefore, we need to go beyond just arguing for it on the basis of abstract notions of justice, or on the grounds that a bigger slice of the pie will help the poor to get their needs met. While these are both valid points, there are many more to be made:

  • We need to convey that there is no ‘natural’ level of inequality, that it varies greatly from country to country and is not a precondition for economic performance.
  • We need to describe how all sections of society are happier and healthier in more equal societies, even the better-off members.
  • We need to talk about how in more equal societies those with debilitating problems can overcome them and become more productive.
  • We need to point out that greater equality can be achieved with the majority being no worse off in money terms, by redistributing money from the wealthiest, who, in many cases, have greatly increased their share of national wealth in the past few decades.[21]
  • And we need to communicate the fact that more equal societies are more trusting, more cohesive, less wasteful and more able to deal effectively with issues like climate change.[22]

Re-Linking Community and the Economy

More localised economies

It’s only fairly recently in human history that the economy has become delinked from the community. While there has been global and national trade for centuries, until recently a much larger proportion of goods and services have been locally sourced. We need to restore a level of economic self-reliance to local communities for reasons that relate
to climate change.

  • First, it’s environmentally costly to be transporting goods around the nation and the planet, using up resources and polluting the planet not just in moving the goods but also in the additional packaging, storage and refrigeration required. This trade reaches the point of absurdity when countries exchange pretty much equal quantities of almost identical products. (However, it should be noted that, given production efficiencies for some products, it can sometimes be more environmentally benign to mass-produce and transport them quite large distances than to produce them locally.)[23] There are also huge environmental costs when people commute long distances to work, shop or play.
  • Second, it’s socially costly. When a locality is divested of its economic functions, that is, when people go elsewhere to work, shop and entertain themselves, then the places where they live become mere dormitories, and
    people’s attachment and commitment to these places become that much weaker.
    Economic activity provides the context for a lot of community interaction, and without it people are less likely to know their neighbours, and they are also less likely to know and care about the local environment. More commuting means more stress and less time and energy for things like family and community. As well, local engagement can suffer when large chain stores replace shopping strips and locally owned businesses. One study revealed that the opening of Walmart stores led to lower voter turnout in these localities and fewer community organisations per capita,[24] while another study found that people had ten times as many conversations in a farmers’ market as they did in a supermarket.[25] When the same people interact in multiple contexts – for example, in the neighbourhood, at the shops, in the  workplace, and at the junior basketball match – they have more chance to get to know one another and are thus more likely to care about one another and care about how they treat each other, and the bonds of community are accordingly strengthened.
    If people are gaining satisfaction from good relationships, there is less need to seek it through material accumulation and consumption.[26] So these social costs are also environmental costs that have an impact on climate change.

More local production, trade and enterprise ownership does mean smaller enterprises on average. The conventional wisdom that bigger equals better and more efficient is now being challenged, particularly in the light of new production and communication technologies, and new environmental criteria introduced into the calculation of efficiency.[27] Moreover, services (as opposed to goods) are usually by their nature local industries, and a lower-carbon economy will be one in which there are more
services and fewer goods.

There is a wide variety of ways inwhich governments and community organisations can promote more localised economies:

  • Simply charging people the full financial and  environmental costs to transport themselves and their goods would radically reduce the financial viability of many forms of long distance trade and commuting. This would cover a range of costs that we usually don’t even consider, such as the full medical and care costs from road accidents. One stark statistic is that for every person killed on the roads, more than four people sustain significant long term brain damage, and a third of them are then dependent on others for life[28].
  • Planning regulations and planning approval processes could favour local production, trade and enterprise ownership, and governments could use grants and tax incentives or disincentives to nurture more localised economies.
  • There are also many kinds of community organisations and processes – from local currencies to business mentors, from enterprise development councils to cooperatives to business incubators – that can promote local enterprise and employment, and with government support their work can be enhanced. Local financial institutions, especially cooperative ones, have a vital role to play in keeping funds in the local area and supporting local enterprises.

Happier workplaces

Another area in which we can re-link community and economic production is at the workplace level. Most people spend a significant proportion of their adult lives in the paid workforce. If we want people to be happier, an obvious place to focus is the quality of their
experience of work, which at the moment is often very poor. Yet this usually gets much less attention than the question of how productive they are and the profit they turn for their employer (even though, as we have seen, growth in wealth and productivity does not necessarily make us any happier).

However, we don’t have to choose between a satisfying work life and productivity. Studies indicate that they can both be enhanced through a range of measures, but particularly through a combination of worker participation in decision-making and worker part-ownership of enterprises.[29]
This is also associated with greater equality in pay levels, and people who have more control over their work are healthier and live longer.[30] This kind of work environment is especially evident in worker cooperatives such as those in Mondragon, which are the most productive enterprises in Spain,[31] but any kind of enterprise can incorporate these features.  Workplace productivity has also been shown to increase when measures such as staff health facilities, childcare and flexible hours are introduced.[32] In other words, we are talking about turning workplaces into what they should be and what people need: fully functioning communities in which those involved have a say, work together in teams, are cared about, care about one another and have a stake in the outcome. Empathic, empowering connections in the places where people work make them feel good and lift their performance.[33]

Such workplace changes could be expected to have a beneficial effect on climate change in similar ways to those already discussed. If people derive greater happiness from good relationships, cooperation and satisfying work in relatively equal workplaces, they will have less need to seek satisfaction from increased consumption, and  from the use of income and wealth to gain respect. They will know the experience of powerful and effective action through cooperation in the community that is their workplace, and they will be more able to practise this in their wider community as well. And in work settings where there is mutual care and responsibility staff are more likely to be concerned about the impact of their work on the local and global environment. Moreover, even though such workplaces are more productive in conventional terms, this needn’t just equate to producing more things. It might translate into working shorter hours or – in an economy in which the unsustainable production is heavily taxed and otherwise  discouraged – into increased production of services or more high-quality, durable, sustainable products.

Because of the productivity gains from these kinds of workplace changes, there’s a clear incentive for employers to introduce them. And governments and community groups can sell the benefits of their adoption.

Supporting the Community Building Process

So far we have seen that increased equality, more self-reliant local economies, and workplaces that are more productive and more satisfying for those working in them can all contribute to a new kind of society, one that is happier, more cohesive and less focused on
material consumption. These changes can be supplemented by a variety of other measures, of which three important ones are as follows: greater focus in the education system on community and cooperation; transport and planning policies that enhance community-building and local self-reliance; and government support for, and partnerships with, community and cooperative organisations.

Educating for cooperation

The formal education system is themajor social institution through which a society can inculcate particular values and goals in its young members. If, therefore, society needs to become more cohesive and cooperative as a matter of survival, then it is imperative that schools focus more on teaching students how to cooperate with others. There are currently major impediments to this.

  • First, students are physically and organisationally separated from the rest of society for the thirteen or more years of their education. There needs to be much more interaction with the world outside the school, that is, students spending more time in interactions and activities outside the school buildings and in the community, and members of the community coming into the school more to share their knowledge and life stories with students. Students get a lot of vocational education, but they learn
    precious little about the many organisations that make up civil society and contribute to human progress.
  • Second, for each student their principal focus is currently on their own individual educational attainment, whereas in the world they will move into there is a much stronger focus on group activities and goals (for example, in the workplace). There needs to be much more emphasis on groups of students engaging in cooperative tasks that have purposes other than just being learning exercises, if students are to appreciate the fruits of cooperation and develop the necessary skills in it. And if there is to be assessment of such tasks, a decent proportion of this should be assessment of the group performance, so that students have an incentive to make the whole group work well.

Transport and planning policies

Transport and planning policies too often at the moment reflect the kind of society we need to move radically away from, in which the car is king and the carless isolated, zoning regulations and major communication routes reinforce unsustainable forms of production, trade and travel, and local communities are soulless, boring places that one wants to escape from. Instead, what is needed is:

  • transport routes and modes that link people within local communities, with a heavy emphasis on walking and cycling, and on public transport that is sustainably powered and within ten minutes walk of every dwelling;
  • requirements that car and truck transport pays its way;
  • higher density housing closer to public transport;
  • mixed-use zoning to encourage people to live, work, shop and play within the one local area; and
  • verve and imagination applied to the challenge of making local communities more attractive, interesting places to live in, with, among other things, lots of trees and plants to keep them cool, generate city produce, and absorb carbon.

Community organisations

Finally, we need to recognise, involve and nurture community organisations much more. Considering the number of non-profit organisations that exist, and the areas they cover – from politics
and economics to the environment, from sport and recreation to religion, culture and intellectual enquiry, from community service to mutual benefit – it’s surprising that their contribution to our civilisation is so under-recognised. They deserve equal ranking with governmental bodies and private enterprise as the major institutions of our society. (In this respect it’s salutary to see, in a country like Russia, the sort of society you get when you move to a capitalist system without having a developed civil society.)

In most industrialised countries community organisations have a recognised role in meeting the needs of the disadvantaged, often in partnership with government, but they could be equally involved as partners with government in stimulating sustainable, locally
self-reliant economic development. However it’s vital that, through the education system and other measures, people are encouraged to join such organisations, because otherwise they either die out or become just government-funded service deliverers without a strong membership base.
Participation in such groups benefits the member as much as it benefits the wider society. According to Robert Putnam, if someone not presently a member of any organisation joins one, their chance of dying in the next year is halved.[34]


There is much to be done, and the temptation is to see it as all too much. In this regard, there’s a story that is instructive. A person walking along a street at night sees a man looking for something under a light pole. Upon enquiry the man says he is looking for his car keys. Upon further enquiry, he reveals that in fact he lost them elsewhere, but the light is better under the pole. We need to be focusing, not on the solutions to climate change that seem easiest, but on the solutions that work, however involved they are and however long they take. Attempting technical fixes without broader changes to the way we live our lives may seem like an easier option, but it is unlikely to work for the reasons I have outlined.

Continuing to live the way we do is unsustainable and unsatisfying on many fronts, but another future is possible. It is a future of communities that are happier and more cohesive while consuming less. It is a future that denies no-one their rights or their chance to lead a satisfying life. It is a future that allows us to live sustainably on this planet. It is also a future that will take time, and a great deal of effort, to realise.

Download the pdf version of this article.


[1] See, for example Frank Stilwell and Kirrily Jordan, Who
Gets What?
, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2007, pp 9 and 169;Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream, Penguin, London, 2005, pp 72ff; Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2007, pp 63-66; and Bill McKibben, Deep
Economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future
, Holt, New York, 2007, pp 33, 35, 38 and 224.

[2] Robert D Putnam (ed), Democracies in Flux: The
Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society
, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002.

[3] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and
Revival of American Community
, Touchstone, New York, 2000.

[4] See for example Ronald Inglehart, Christian Welzel and Franziska Duetsch, ‘Social Capital, Voluntary Associations and Collective Action: Which Aspects of Social Capital Have the Biggest ‘Civic’ Payoff’? in Journal of Civil Society, Vol 1, No 2, pp 121-146, Sept 2005; and Tom Bentley, Ben Jupp and Daniel Stedman Jones, ‘Apolitical Myth’, an edited version of a Demos Foundation briefing paper, Workers Online, Issue No 66, 11 August 2000

[5] One survey cited in the Guardian recently claimed that only 1% of British voters had faith in their politicians (G2, p 5, 27/11/09).

[6] On the correlation between environmentalist views and left of centre views see Eric Neumayer, ‘The environment, left-wing political orientation and ecological economics’, Ecological  Economics, Vol 51, Issues 3-4, December 2004, pp 167-175.

[7] See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Allen Lane,
London, 2009, p 222 (see also; and Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce P Kennedy, The
Health of Nations: Why Inequality Is Harmful to Your Health
, The New Press, New York, 2006, pp 109-110.

[8] Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, pp 221-2.

[9] Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, Ch 12.

[10] According to McKibben, 2007, p 11, the bottom 90% of American taxpayers experienced a decline in income in real dollar terms between 1979 and 2005.

[11] Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, p 51; and Stilwell and Jordan, 2007, p 196.

[12] Evidence of a positive correlation between tax evasion  and income inequality is described in ‘Tax Evasion, Income Inequality and Opportunity Costs of Compliance’, by Kim M Bloomquist, Senior Economist, Internal Revenue Service, Office of Research, Washington, DC, Paper presented at the 96th Annual Conference of the National Tax Association, Chicago, Il, November 2003.

[13] Philip Mangano, Chairman of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, Life Matters, Radio National, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2/4/09.

[14] See Robert Salter, ‘Moving beyond the limits of solidarity: a social investment approach’, Dissent, Spring 2008, pp 6-9.

[15] Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, Ch 15.

[16] Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009.

[17] Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, pp 180-187.

[18] Andrew Scott, ‘Human Security: Guaranteeing a Decent Life for All’ in John Langmore, To Firmer Ground, University of New
South Wales Press, Sydney, 2007 pp 117-120.

[19] Doug Henwood, After the New Economy, Scribe, Melbourne, 2003, pp 216-217.

[20] Kretzmann, John and McKnight, John, Building
Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing A Community’s Assets
, ACTA Publications, Chicago, 1993.

[21] See Kawachi and Kennedy, 2006, pp 24-25, for a description of how the wealthiest in the US have fared.

[22] Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, Chs 4 and 15.

[23] See The New Economics Foundation, The Great
, for a good overview of some of the complexities of this subject.

[24] Andrew Simms, ‘Questions for the new world’, Guardian,

[25] McKibben, 2007, p 105.

[26] Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, pp 225-226.

[27] Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L Hunter Lovins, Natural
, Little, Brown and Company, New York, Ch 7; McKibben, 2007, Ch 2.


[29] Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, pp247-256.

[30] Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009,

[31] Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009,

[32] Eisler, 2007, pp 49-53.

[33] Eisler, 2007, pp 53-54.

[34] Putnam, 2000, p 331.
Download the pdf version of this paper.

Blog Comments

As an elderly retired research environmental scientist, frustrated at the inability of scientists to get their message across, I find this paper well argued and supported by a plethora of references. It merits serious consideration and debate at high policy levels. CPD is to be congratulated at trying to achieve this.

I am old enough to remember when the Australian society was a lot more like what is hoped for here! Observing my grandchildren with their huge numbers of discarded toys and minimal interaction with friends, they do not seem any happier than we were as kids playing together in the street . I can also recollect the culture introduced by Thatcher and Regan (and slavishly followed here) that there is no such thing as society – only individuals. I have seen this concept falter and fail in manufacturing, public transport and particularly in politics. Particularly so in politics – where we see a race to the bottom where government policy is dictated by the perceived interests of swinging voter in marginal electorates. I wonder if those critically important voters are sufficiently educated to read or understand this excellent paper, let alone support it’s thesis!

Perhaps the introduction of referendums as are used in some Scandinavian countries could be a step forward towards overcoming this paralysis of future oriented policy.

would love to upload the PDF but it won’t function. So glad I have discovered the cpd! 

 Hi Michele  see if you can access the PDF now. Cheers, Miriam.

Leave a Comment