Vauban: you don't have to be a hippy to live the dream
Sitting in a curry house after a meeting, a friend of mine was getting passionate about the importance of governments. Never mind all this local community stuff, he argued: if you really want to improve society you need governments to take big actions to redistribute income.
 
I wouldn’t disagree about the importance of government in general and income redistribution in particular. National governments, in centralised societies like the UK especially, still have enormous powers to influence the wellbeing of ordinary people. A cut in benefits here or a tweak to taxes there can make the difference between coping and barely surviving.
 
There’s a problem, though: for much of the last forty years government actions in the UK have shifted society in the opposite direction, favouring the well-off and entrenching rather than reducing inequalities. There is a self-perpetuating consensus among mainstream politicians that voters won’t stomach progressive action, whether it’s to share wealth more equally or to tackle the environmental crisis we generally ignore. 
 
So while we may need the clout of governments, the reality we live within is that many of the actions they take are the wrong ones; and that even when the direction of travel is well-intentioned, the measures taken range between poor and abject in their impact and effectiveness. 
 
To argue - as my friend is fond of doing - that community based action is wholly inadequate to bring about systemic change is to ignore that reality, relying instead on the all-or-nothing hope that one day the political climate will shift to such a degree that all parties see environmental action and social justice as vote-winners.
 
You then have to ask what might bring about that change. There’s very little to show for the years of hectoring and lobbying by policy geeks. Indeed, much of it has probably been counterproductive.
 
This is why community-based action matters. It does three things. First, it enables people to make a difference where they can, in manageable ways that create incremental change. Second, it enacts visible signs of the difference that can be made, leading by example and demonstrating alternative ways of thinking. And third, it can begin to effect cultural change, as those who start with small actions begin to understand the way those actions connect with the bigger issues.
 
This is what Erik Bichard’s book, The Coming of Age of the Green Community, is about. Introducing his argument, he says the recent wave of community-based action ‘is reinforced by the perception that the world’s environmental and social justice problems are unlikely to be solved by governments’. 
 
Prof Bichard takes us on a whistlestop tour of some of the environmental movement’s flagbearers, from Vauban in Germany to the Hill District of Pittsburgh, via Ashton Hayes in rural Cheshire.
 
His argument is that where governments have failed to act, the drive of people to tackle issues facing their own communities has led to manifest and significant changes. These include reduced energy consumption in Ashton Hayes, which aims to be Britain’s first carbon neutral village; sustainable building on a significant scale in Vauban; and the effective linking of environmental and social justice concerns in poor communities in Pittsburgh. 
 
There are caveats. Many of the projects he describes have relied heavily on short-term state or charitable funds, or on particularly dynamic individuals. But there are always caveats and compromises. What Prof Bichard has noticed is that small actions can often have a domino effect, shifting sceptical communities towards more sustainable patterns of behaviour.
 
His conclusion is optimistic, even in a context of impending crisis: ‘If the majority of communities decide that sustainable change is the only way to defend their own and wider society, then there is not much that government or industry can do about it.’
 
We’re a long way from such a situation and there’s still a real risk that outside economic and political forces will stifle many of the emerging movements for change. If governments and politicians showed just a little of the vision and courage that many local projects demonstrate, much more could be done. 
 
But we can’t wait for governments to act. As Prof Bichard comments: ‘The hope lies in people at a local level refusing to wait to be rescued.’