Intrinsic benefits

The principal intrinsic benefit relates to the social and environmental basis of the niche. But what can small-scale community action contribute to sustainable development? A review of grassroots action for sustainability by Church and Elster (2002) identified a range of direct environmental benefits such as reduced car-use, increased recycling, and planting trees. When assessing impacts, they note 'small local projects may seem almost irrelevant at city-scale or above, but if wider policies lead to larger numbers of them, there is every reason to expect them, in aggregate form, to have proportionate impact' (Church and Elster [2002: 25], citing the Community Recycling Network comprising 350 local initiatives). They also identified significant socio-economic impacts with benefits for sustainable communities. These related to job creation, training and skills development, personal growth (e.g., self-esteem and confidence), a sense of community, social capital, improved access to services and facilities, health improvements, and greater civic engagement. Integrating small-scale renew-ables into community projects brings similar benefits (Devine-Wright, 2006).

The self-image of these initiatives is not as environmental organisations, but rather as groups aiming to improve quality of life in local communities. This is an important point. Grassroots initiatives need not consciously practice 'strong' sustainability for them to have an impact concordant with those objectives. Groups doing 'simple' activities like furniture recycling, community composting, or running a volunteering project, may nevertheless develop significant sustainability practices. Of course, sustainability is a contested concept, and diverse 'sustainabilities' are being experimented with at the grassroots and in other domains. Some practices run counter to certain forms of sustainability; consider the way extreme localism/ autonomy projects conflict with sustainable developments conceived for poorer regions through Fair Trade. The point is to appreciate empirically the sustainability dimensions and trade-offs being developed in niches, and to relate niche self-interpretations of performance to their motivating ideologies.

Grassroots innovation can deliver sustainability benefits where top-down measures struggle. This is because community action utilises contextualised knowledge and implies a better 'fit' of solution (cf. inflexible top-down targets and procedures) (Burgess et al., 2003). Grassroots groups have experience and knowledge about what works in their localities, and what matters to local people. They can be well-placed to present sustainability issues in ways more meaningful, personal and directly relevant, and which 'goes with the grain of people's lives' (Roberts, 2005). They can engage and reinforce behavioural change.

The grassroots can also be a site for action on 'unpopular' or 'fringe' issues not taken up by mainstream actors. A 'world within a world', grassroots innovations are a demonstration that another way is possible, building alternative infrastructures to the existing regime. However unlikely mainstream diffusion, the niche nevertheless stands as a symbolic embodiment of alternatives (Amin et al., 2002; Leyshon et al., 2003). Wakeman (2005) uses the metaphor of a 'green conveyor belt' to express the notion that while some grassroots innovations begin in niches, then grow and are incorporated into mainstream regimes (such as organic food), radical action on unfunded issues continuously regenerates at the grassroots.

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