Box Preparing for the Long Emergency

On the outskirts of Barcelona, a former leper colony now houses a new community. In 2001, a group of 30 squatters took over this property that had lain vacant since the 1950s and created an eco-squatter community, Can Masdeu. While squatters typically are viewed as a problem, this group has taken unused land and is now a model sustainable community—maintaining a composting toilet, a constructed wetlands for processing gray water, homemade solar thermal panels, even a "bici-lavadora" (bicycle-powered washing machine). Moreover, the community provides 28 community garden plots to neighborhood residents, maintains a regular meeting space for a variety of social activist groups, and sets up a sustainable third place on Sunday nights: the Rurbar, selling food and beer that the community produces.

Can Masdeu also offers another benefit: it shows that life can go on in a climate of uncertainty, where community members have no rights to ownership, where police have attempted to expel them by force, and where financial capital to invest is scarce. The leper colony, founded in the seventeenth century, functioned without electricity, obtained its water from mountain springs, and grew its own food. While Can Mas-deu has electricity today, its water and sewage treatment and much of its food production are not dependent on it. The community—in pared-down form—could function even if the global economy seized up and died tomorrow.

Communities can play a significant role in helping reduce ecological problems that currently threaten the future of human civilization. But due to a lack of leadership by the worst polluters and positive feedback cycles like thawing permafrost and the melting Arctic ice cap, it may be too late to prevent the worst effects of climate change— such as a sea level rise of 15 meters that the melting of Greenland and western Antarctica would trigger. Add to this growing social disruptions from increased competition over petroleum supplies and the possible breakdown of global governance as new resource rivalries form, and the picture looks bleak indeed. If this scenario— "the long emergency," as author James Howard Kunstler calls it—becomes the new reality, then communities will once again become central in providing for themselves. Local food provision, local energy production, and the basic technologies needed to maintain a water supply and process sewage safely may mean the difference between a high quality of life and abject poverty.

If humanity cannot mobilize to prevent an ecological collapse, any effort by communities to increase their self-sufficiency and reduce dependence on far-off goods that will become scarce as the global economic system falters will help them survive in a less stable future, much as the residents of Can Masdeu are doing now.

Source: See endnote 28.

Engaging Communities for a Sustainable World coordinate 166 groups in 13 countries, providing an online learning and networking forum for communities working to lower their reliance on a fragile, globalized economic system. Efforts of these many groups are impressive—ranging from local community education projects to town and city resolutions to reduce dependence on oil.29

Networks like BALLE—the Business Alliance for Living Local Economies—are also helping to drive localization forward. BALLE, consisting of more than 15,000 businesses, has 51 networks spread over 26 regions in North America (states and Canadian provinces). These networks help connect local businesses, with the goal of strengthening exchange of goods locally while helping to enact public policies to support decentralized ownership of businesses, fair wages, and good stewardship of the environment.30

Some towns and cities are also looking holistically at how they can localize their economies. For example, in Willits, California, the WELL (Willits Economic LocaLization) initiative is educating town residents about the benefits of and opportunities to localize the economy. So far WELL has focused on assessing current resource use in Willits—such as the amount of energy imported and the CO2 emissions produced per capita—and it is now turning to figuring out how best to reduce the town's ecological impacts and reduce dependence on the global economic system. In the United Kingdom, there are also 21 Transition Towns— towns, neighborhoods, villages, and cities that are setting up "transition initiatives" in which they try to move toward localization, reduce oil dependence, and lower the ecological impact of their economies.31

With growing disparities between rich and poor worldwide and the global growth of slums, there is a strong need to merge the empowerment of communities like those just described with efforts to meet people's basic needs independently and sustainably. Community-driven development (CDD) is one strategy to address poverty in this way. With CDD, poor communities are the lead actors in development efforts, not passive recipients of aid, and are empowered to focus on the priorities they choose—whether that be health, education, sanitation, or other pressing issues—and given the assistance they need to succeed.

Sometimes CDD efforts are initiated directly by communities, but many are supported by either NGOs or international agencies that can provide financial or technical assistance. For example, a Zambian NGO, the North Luangwa Wildlife Conservation and Community Development Programme, has worked to reduce poaching in the North Luangwa National Park by empowering communities to make a living through farming and other more sustainable enterprises, while also setting up local clinics and education programs. Started in 1994, this program now reaches more than 35,000 people.32

The United Nations and other international agencies are also increasingly using CDD. The COMPACT program (Community Management of Protected Areas Conservation), for instance, is a joint project of the U.N. Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility that provides grants of less than $50,000 to communities in World Heritage Sites to help establish projects that improve community well-being while reducing people's impact on the surrounding ecosystems. Around Mount Kenya, where deforestation is a significant concern, COMPACT has worked with villages to set up a microhydro generator and sustainable food projects like beekeeping and trout farming, and it has worked with schools to provide more efficient cookstoves—all of which help

Engaging Communities for a Sustainable World reduce community dependence on firewood while offering new economic opportunities. (For more on CDD in developing countries, see Chapter 12.)33

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