There is a good argument that we need to establish sustainable community before we will be able to achieve sustainability in anything else – and there are two facets of the argument to consider. One is that we need to establish a culture of collaboration rather than competition in order to fully address the issues at hand. The other is that we need each other to support our efforts to break our addiction to comfort and convenience. I think both considerations hold considerable weight.
Studies on sustainability, which basically means the ability to endure, have evolved out of the growing concern of our impact on the planet. We face possibilities of peak oil production and peak water availability, along with climate change and other environmental concerns based on our lack of care for the planet that sustains us. These studies affirm the same three aspects that permaculture has been looking at for 30 years – sustainability involves social, economic, and environmental concerns, along with their relationship to each other.
Our sense of community – our relationships and connection to the whole – is vital as we consider this. An early 90’s Gallop poll indicated that “sense of community” was one of the top 10 felt needs in our western culture. As technology advanced and suburbia developed in the mid 20th century, it had a major impact on how we relate to our neighbors. I remember growing up in the 50’s and 60’s in a neighborhood of German immigrants in Milwaukee – everybody knew each other. In contrast, I lived in a neighborhood in Florida in 2005 that was developed in the 60’s – two older women that lived a couple houses apart for over 25 years, now alone and lonely, never had taken the opportunity to even talk to each other.
Each generation since mid 20th century has been moved farther along the continuum away from that sense of community. On the up side things are changing – at least in many people’s desire for change as they pursue that need. Younger people, especially, are using technology to create collaborative environments online and off. Boomers nearing retirement are looking past “gated” communities for a more connected and meaningful stage of life. Co-housing and other collaborative living environments have been on the rise for the past 20 years. Worker cooperatives and other collaborative working environments have also been on the rise.
There are many human issues that keep us separated – emotional wounds, power struggles, communication deficits, etc. We have been surrounded and indoctrinated by a culture that has cultivated denial in shallow relationships, valued competition above cooperation, taught the pursuit of personal gain and neglected interpersonal skills, honored war and entertained with violence… But again, on the upside there is research and tools that continue to be developed to move us toward sustainable community.