Communities

A general problem with the strategy of lifestyle change is that it is ultimately divorced from where it wants to go, in that it is not obvious how the individualism on which it is based will convert into the com-munitarianism that is central to most descriptions of the sustainable society. It would appear more sensible to subscribe to forms of political action that are already communitarian, and that are therefore both a practice and an anticipation of the advertised goal. In this sense the future is built into the present, and the programme is more intellectually convincing and practically coherent.

In this context Robyn Eckersley has argued that 'The revolutionary subject is ... the active, responsible person-in-community, homo com-munitas, if you like' (Eckersley, 1987, p. 19). She goes on to suggest, in a vein referred to above, that this is because 'Perhaps the ultimate principle of ecopraxis is the need to maintain consistency between means and ends' (ibid., p. 21). Consequently, 'the most revolutionary structures are seen to be those that foster the development of self-help, community responsibility and free activity and are consistent with the ecotopian ideal of a loose federation of regions and communes' (ibid., p. 22).

Community strategies might be an improvement on lifestyle strategies, then, because they are already a practice of the future in a more complete sense than that allowed by changes in individual behaviour patterns. They are more clearly an alternative to existing norms and practices, and, to the extent that they work, they show that it is possible to live differently - even sustainably. Rudolf Bahro has expressed it as follows:

To bring it down to the basic concept, we must build up areas liberated from the industrial system. That means, liberated from nuclear weapons and from supermarkets. What we are talking about is a new social formation and a different civilisation.

Obviously not just any communities will do. It is not enough to say that 'a major priority for both reds and greens is the campaign to win for communities greater control over their environment' (Weston, 1986, p. 160), without those communities having a clear idea of how they might operate sustainably. In this context, the kinds of communities that represent ecological lifestyles are rural self-sufficiency farms, city farms, some workers' cooperatives, some kinds of squat throughout the cities of Europe, and, more concretely (in Britain), the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) at Machynlleth in Wales and the Findhorn community in Scotland: 'The solution, for both Bahro and Findhornians, is to initiate spiritual reconstruction in alternative communities' (Seel, 1999, pp. 262-3). In 1991 David Pepper published the results of a series of interviews with more than eighty commune members from twelve communes in England, Scotland and Wales (Pepper, 1991). Using a measure of 'greenness' revolving around ecologically sound practices such as the sharing of resources, recycling, cutting energy use and so on, Pepper comes to the conclusion that:

communards [those studied, at least] have a world view that is indeed radically and overwhelmingly green. This view translates rather patchily into individual and group practice, but it is probably true that communes can provide an institutional context which encourages ecologically sound practices.

The Schwarzes have observed that 'these ventures operate outside and potentially in opposition to, the prevailing culture' (1987, p. 73), and with that they may have put their finger on the necessary defining characteristic of any strategy which hopes to bring about radical change. In the section on parliamentary change, it was suggested that initiatives in and around the legislature were too easily absorbed, and thus neutralized, by their context. Initiatives that live 'outside' the prevailing culture and its diversionary channels have a much brighter chance of remaining oppositional and therefore of bringing about radical change.

However, even this needs to be qualified because 'to be outside' and 'to be oppositional' are not the same thing, and the difference is crucial in terms of understanding the options for green political strategy. This is because it may be argued that the dominant set of modes and practices needs an opposition against which to define itself and with respect to which to judge itself. In this sense the polarity that opposition sets up helps to sustain and reproduce that which it opposes. One can see this phenomenon in operation at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales. At the outset, the community at the Centre intended to be 'outside' the prevailing culture, independent of the National Electricity Grid and living a daily life organized around radically democratic and sustainable principles: 'low-tech methods, reduced or simplified methods of consumption, job-rotation, personal growth, priority to collective resources, blurring the distinction of work/non-work, a strong emphasis on community life, and "living the technology" ' (Harper, n.d., p. 4). But, as the same member of the community put it, 'Gradually the bloom faded. I watched it happen in myself. A combination of hard experience, exhaustion, human frailty, pressures of family life, a desire to be acceptable to ordinary humanity, ageing . . . turned me into a reluctant moderate' (ibid., p. 2). One CAT member in Pepper's commune study argued that the Quarry (the Centre is built around an old slate quarry) was now a way for people 'already into social change to renew their batteries. But it's not a way to change society. I'd like the green movement to promote communes, but it's more important for it to get political power' (Pepper, 1991, p. 181).

This journey towards moderation must be the story of a thousand alternative communities which have found that opposition ends up at incorporation. Now the CAT processes thousands of visitors a year who come from all over the world and pay money to look in on an experiment that, by virtue of the visitors themselves, is shown to have lapsed. Peter Harper writes, 'Sadly, but inevitably, I see a time of Revisionism ahead. . .. The Quarry will become more efficient, harmonious, consistent, respectable, and boring. It will be a successful institution, not a community' (n.d., p. 6). The Centre is now a successful institution - that which was decolonized has been recolonized, and we are left to celebrate 'the Quarry's arrival as a respectable and integral part of British society' (ibid., p. 7). Pepper's study suggests that this pattern is not unique to the CAT:

Perhaps the greatest potential barrier to communes acting as agents for radical rather than reformist social change towards an Ecotopian society is the process whereby they become absorbed into conventional society, that culture to which they have previously run counter.

Pepper theorizes this, in conclusion, as a three-stage process: an attempt to bypass the system; then using it; then becoming part of it (Pepper, 1991, p. 205). Of course, it might be argued that the respectability produced by becoming part of the system is precisely the Centre's strongest card in the context of persuading visitors to go home and practise the kind of lifestyle change described above. Some might even be so taken by the lifestyle of the community's members that they go and set up their own communities - and if this were to happen to sufficient people (although there is no evidence that it has) it would amount to justification of the strategy of change by example.

The CAT's respectability, it is suggested, makes it a likely source of inspiration in that it is recognizably similar to 'our' society: they have telephones and a restaurant, they care about being warm, and they are surrounded by technology, some of it makeshift but some of it extremely complex (if 'alternative'). The members' daily lives do not appear to revolve around long periods of meditation, shamanistic rituals or talking to lettuces, and so the day visitor is less likely to dismiss the community as irrelevant to her or his own experience. I am sure this is true, but one is still confronted with the distinction between environmental and fully green change. The CAT's success will lie in raising an environmental consciousness rather than in providing a 'liberated zone' (in Rudolf Bahro's evocative phrase) of sustainable living, and this is the distinction Harper was pointing to in describing the Centre as a 'successful institution' rather than a 'community'. Most community initiatives, then, oppose the prevailing culture rather than live outside it. Just what 'living outside' means, and how far it is even possible, will be discussed below, but it seems clear that part of the reason why community initiatives have not brought about the 'fundamental shift' that Jonathon Porritt mentioned at the beginning of this chapter is because their opposition is easily neutralized and, indeed, turns out to be necessary for the very survival and reproduction of that which it opposes.

What I have called 'community strategies' are arguably an improvement on lifestyle change because they make more ready connections between current practice and future aspirations. However, besides easy neutralization, such strategies depend too heavily (as do their lifestyle counterparts) on change by example. They may indeed show us that sustainable styles of life are possible, but as agents for political change they rely entirely on their seductive capacity. The problem is that people refuse to be seduced: rather than producing radical changes in consciousness, sustainable communities perform the role of the surrogate good conscience, and we can go at the weekend to see it operating. Respondents in Pepper's (admittedly restricted) survey were generally downbeat regarding communes forming a vanguard for social change:

Over six out of ten of our interviewees thought that communes are not important in leading us to a green society, and do not constitute a significant part of the blueprint for survival. Less than three in ten thought that they might be significant, and under one in ten was prepared to be enthusiastic and unconditional in supporting the idea.

If confrontation appears to result so easily in co-option, then perhaps circumvention is another way forward for the green movement. I have suggested that the principal advantage of community strategies for change is that they anticipate the hoped-for green future, particularly its decentralized communitarian aspects. In this context an interesting practice has recently reappeared, which depends not upon setting up entirely integral communities, but upon allowing communities of work and exchange to 'emerge' through creating a system of what is most generally referred to as 'local money' (Greco, 1994).

Such systems are by no means new, and they have usually appeared when local economies stagnate owing to the flight of capital or the underutilization of local skills and resources. The results of such a situation are familiar:

When local unemployment rises, for whatever reason, people lose their incomes and have less money in their pockets. They spend less money with local traders, who in turn have less money in their pockets, then the whole local economy takes a downturn and becomes sluggish. Unemployed people sit at home while shopkeepers watch half-empty shops. The economic activity which should be the life spring of an economy begins to dry up.

The aim of a local money system is therefore both to return a measure of control of currency to the community and to put dormant skills and resources back into circulation. This happens, in theory, because local currencies 'can be spent only within the limited area of the community . . . [they] can be created locally in accordance with the needs of the local economy, and . . . [they] encourage local people to patronize one another rather than buying from outside the community' (Greco, 1994, p. 46). The results seem sometimes to have been spectacular:

In the town of Worgl, Austria, there stands a bridge whose plaque commemorates the fact that it was built by debt-free, locally created money. This was just a small part of a significant experiment that transformed towns and whole areas out of poverty within three months and into prosperity within one year, at a time when there was widespread unemployment in the national economy.

This particular experiment took place between about 1929 and 1934 and, significantly, was ended when 200 Austrian mayors met and decided to follow Worgl's example, whereupon the Austrian National Bank began a long legal battle to have the scheme outlawed. They eventually succeeded and the system was wound up.

One of the best-known contemporary examples of a local money scheme was the Local Employment and Trade System (LETSystem) which ran in the town of Courtenay on Canada's Vancouver Island between 1983 and 1989, and which was the inspiration for 'hundreds of active LETS systems in various stages of development in many countries' (Greco, 1994, p. 88). The general principles of the Courtenay system were as follows:

A number of people who live locally and who want to trade together get together, agree to the LETSystem rules, and give themselves account numbers. Each person then makes out two lists, one of 'wants' and another of 'offers', with prices attached (following normal market prices). A joint list is made up and circulated to every one. Then the members look down the list, phone whoever has what they want, and start trading. . .. The limits of one-to-one barter are eliminated, as you can now trade with the people in the system as a whole: barter is now a collective proposition.

No money changes hands because there is no actual 'money' - credits and debits are recorded on a computer, and the Green dollars in which LETSystem users trade never get beyond being intangible bits of information. If I sell a car for, say, 2000 Green dollars, the computer credits me with those dollars, which I can then use within - and only within - the system. The money thus remains inside the systemcommunity and provides the incentive for people to advertise, sell and buy skills and resources. Shopkeepers may decide to sell their goods wholly or partly in Green dollars, and so benefit from the newly generated buying power of LETSystem users.

This is not the place to go into the details of local money experiments and the problems that can come with them: hoarding, inflation, tax liability, social security implications, defaulting on debits by leaving the 'community' and so on. Likewise, I have mentioned only two of the more obvious advantages of such a system in a run-down local economy: money stays local and incentive is provided to exercise skills that might otherwise remain dormant. LETSystem users have reported other benefits, such as simplicity, the personal nature of transactions and the building of self-confidence that comes with supplying others with the goods and services they require.

My intention here has simply been to show how local money schemes might be considered as one potential strategy for green change - a 'community' strategy in my typology in that they anticipate the decentralized communitarian nature of the sustainable society. At the same time though, the Austrian National Bank's reaction to the Worgl experiment described above might be taken as a sign of the potentially subversive nature of local money schemes. They appear to be less easily co-opted than other examples of community change, and in this respect have characteristics that might well qualify them as a part-strategy for the possible agents of change discussed further below.

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