I have wanted to use this story about the ducks in Boulder creek for years, and doing so in a UK magazine called Resurgence/Ecologist really brought things full circle. I was living in Boulder when I was asked to write the only other thing I’ve ever contributed to Resurgence, “Don’t Call Me A Green Consumer.” I remember sitting on a boulder in the creek – Boulder is called that for a good reason – on a spring morning and reading my mail, amongst which was a letter from Satish Kumar, the editor then and editor now, confirming that assignment. They’ve given this new article, which I’ve called “A Smaller Circle,” this subtitle: “Karen Christensen upholds the paramount importance of community living, whilst recognising its shadowy side.”

Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability Vol. 10/10: The Future of Sustainability, eds. Ray C. Anderson, Interface, Inc., Ian Spellerberg, Lincoln University, Daniel E. Vasey, Divine Word College Hardcover $150 2012 1 Vol. 496 pagesnability“A Smaller Circle” was the title of a book I was supposed to write for Random Century in London and the article here is based on a much longer article I wrote for The Future of Sustainability, the final volume in the 10-volume Encyclopedia of Sustainability. You’ll note that I managed to quote Bill McNeill, my 95-year-old historian friend and mentor, at the end.

A Smaller Circle (download PDF by clicking here: A Smaller Circle Resurgence May-13)

There’s a creek that runs through Boulder, Colorado, dropping from pool to pool to pool from the edge of the Rocky Mountains. I once stood on a bridge there watching the ducks swim in circles as the ice froze. The air was white with fat snowflakes and the ducks took it in turn to go into the water, swimming round and round and round. “They’re keeping the ice from freezing over,” I said to my curious children, “they know to keep it open through the storm.”

I think of that closing circle sometimes, when I wonder about how we can make our world a better place by living smaller, by recapturing a sense of community. Community is part of every scenario for a sustainable future. We talk about the importance of collective endeavor, and about the sense of community that distinguishes certain places. But I sometimes think that we see the smaller circle of community as a constricted life, mere survival on a planet we’ve worked to death. Instead, we should be looking at how living smaller can bring back things all of us long for: a sense of connection with our neighbors, the comfort of knowing that in a crisis there are people who will gladly help out, and the conviviality that can only exist off-line.

All too often, the most successful efforts at community-wide change come about when there is a threat that affects everyone: war, for example, or natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones), or some kind of pollution that not only affects health but also property values—in many cases the rich are able to insulate themselves from harm, which makes it far less likely that long-term changes will be made to promote sustainability.

Unfortunately, the communities that develop in response to a threat can be insular, and/or hostile to anyone who is outside the group, and antagonistic to anything that might impinge on the group’s members even if it appears to offer benefits to the wider society. Community can be dangerous. The ultimate example of bonding social capital is that of a terrorist cell or a cult.

Nationalism and other created forms of solidarity can lead to the perception of those outside the group as dangerous, even not truly human, thus justifying behavior that would never be accepted inside the community. Communities are nested, and overlapping: any single community is part of many others, except in the case of extremists, who try to withdraw entirely from the world.

Another community-related danger facing environmentalists is the appeal of real or potential disaster. Indeed, disasters can and do lead to a renewed sense of community. Blackouts and power cuts get neighbors talking to one another and people often seem nostalgic about those periods in which they learned to help and depend on those close at hand. After the terrorist attacks in New York on 11 September 2001, politicians as well as citizens talked about the increased sense of community. The UK’s prime minister, Tony Blair, gave what became known as his “power of community” speech. The social consequences of Hurricane Katrina striking the southern United States were not exclusively sinister ones such as looting (although that did occur); there were positive ones as well.

Popular dystopian and apocalyptic films are full of examples of communities arising during a disaster—in the face of zombie and alien invasions, for example, which often unite strangers and even people normally hostile to one another. This tendency to come together during disaster, and the implicit desire for community, can be seen in writings about Y2K at the turn of the millennium as well as today peak oil and climate change: some argue that only disaster will inspire a majority of human beings to make the changes required for our global population to live sustainably. But as appealing as redemption through disaster may be, millennialism (i.e., utopianism based on the destruction of the current world) is a fatalistic approach to the future.    Inasmuch as community is one of the benefits people perceive in an apocalyptic disaster, those working towards a sustainable future ought to be focusing on the myriad ways we have to build community here and now.

By doing so, both online and off-line communities can promote the kind of contentment and well-being that will moderate consumerism—thereby reducing pressure on the planet—and also find far better ways to cooperate on pressing issues such as climate change, resource equity, and population. Here’s how.

First, we need to focus on “bridging” social capital, which is created by activities that bring together people from different social and economic classes such as parent-teacher associations (PTAs), pick-up basketball games, block parties, and volunteer associations. Studies show that in communities where people have overlapping ties, social friction is much reduced: even if they disagree over a school issue, they play on the same softball team or go to the same church, and come to know each other in multiple dimensions and have opportunities to talk both informally and regularly. This gives people an incentive to look at environmental issues from other people’s points of view and to work together at finding solutions.

Second, we need to recognize that face-to-face relationships are different in essence from online connections. Life online can be very lonely—and it can make us narrow minded. Google’s algorithms make the search results for someone who believes that climate change science is a left-wing plot different from the results of the same search conducted by someone who has other beliefs. Sustainability is a real-world challenge, and as valuable as online communications maybe, change has to take place in the physical world.

Finally, relishing the complexities of community rather than trying to reduce it to a simple formula will enable us to balance individual rights with the common good. Community offers sustainable satisfactions and is a primary source of happiness. Once certain basic and vital needs are met, most of what matters to people is generated through their relationships with others. By valuing our connections more, and becoming more comfortable with the give and take of today’s complex, global relationships and with the differences of perspective that make life interesting, we can find common ground. “What unites us is greater than what divides us,” says the historian William H. McNeill, and our search for community will make a sustainable future possible.