RSA Thursdays fill a gap in our popular imagination of the working week, sharing the honour with manic Mondays, pancake Tuesdays, ash Wednesdays and crunchy -be-thankful Fridays. One of the best things about working here is ambling into an RSA Thursday event at lunchtime and having your mind informed, amused and expanded.
I missed the event on October 1, but dutifully listened to the podcast chez London transport, and deliberately took a circuitous route home so that I could finish it uninterrupted. The event, Saving Kyoto: Copenhagen and Beyond was chaired by Mark Lynas and featured the astoundingly impressive Professor Graciela Chichilnisky. The talk concerned the complex scientific, economic, and political issues around climate change, and the multi-faceted challenge of preventing planetary degradation.
I mention this event in the context of connected communities because a blunt question naturally arises: why bother trying to understand community regeneration, when faced with imminent global destruction?
Part of the answer was provided at yesterday's RSA Thursday by Madeleine Bunting who answered a question about everybody belonging to Gaia. The author of The Plot suggested that while we may be intellectually attracted to the idea of one people, one planet, Gaia is not a natural human scale, and that environmental responsibility is grounded in attachment to a sense of place or places. She also remarked that the geographical conception of community is the most useful one.
Earlier this week, Ann Gutowski, senior fellowship support at the RSA, forwarded an email she had received from an RSA fellow, Charlene Collison, who had enclosed what she believes to be "the first community sustainability plan to be published in England" and that this was something she had been directly inspired by the RSA to do. Forest Row is a large village in the heart of Sussex that subscribes to transition culture and is one of many transition towns that is attempting to forge effective and inspiring local responses to global challenges.
In the email forwarded, Charlene Collison wrote:
"I decided the only way not to despair is to change what you can. So I started in my local community, coming together with others concerned about climate change, energy shortage, population growth, resource poverty and so on. We formed a group to create a vision for a sustainable village, under the banner of Transition Initiatives.
The future is certainly looking ominous. But I have experiences that when you join together with others to do something about it, something extraordinary starts to happen. You might start with something that seems small or insignificant in the face of the huge scale changes that are needed, with "ordinary" people, not experts, and no idea how to begin. But in the process, such groups can come up with really robust ideas and initiatives that start things moving and create a momentum that gradually infects the wider community."
Action is often the best antidote to despair, but no matter how inspiring and effective a local initiative in the UK manages to become, does it make a meaningful impact given that that the US and China between them emit roughly two thirds of the carbon in the global atmosphere?
I think so. First, as a moral and spiritual duty, we should do what we can, with what we have, where we are. Local transition initiatives are not merely rearranging the deckchairs on a global Titanic, they are more like a fleet of luminous lifeboats populated by those wise and brave enough to jump ship before colliding with the ice flow and giving those still on deck a way out (of course, less figuratively, it is the not the presence of ice but its absence that is the problem...).
Secondly, perhaps eco-inertia can only be shifted on a small and tangible scale where there is a clear relationship between actions and outcomes. The recent IPPR report suggested the British public were generally disinterested in climate change, and would be more likely to change their behaviour if it saved them money, rather than helping to save the planet, but it is not clear what follows from this finding. Joe public may not care about preventing the destruction of the Amazon, the 'lungs of the earth', but he might be interested in planting trees in a local public space, and giving his own lungs a workout in the process.
Or he might not, and perhaps we should despair, but findings about the essentially social nature of our brains tell us that we are prone to copy, imitate, and feel pressure to conform to what others around us are doing. Part of the problem is that because so many people who care about climate change do so little about it, the people who don't care literally don't see a reason to care. So you have to make your concern visible, and the best way to do that is often local, and on issues that people around you are also likely to care about.
Third, have you got anything better to do? We know that one of the consistent and reliable findings from happiness studies is not just that we are happier when we feel connected, but that one of the best ways to get connected is through volunteering, and one of things most worth volunteering for is to save the planet, one place and person at a time.
I feel there is more to say on this subject, but I am not the best person to say it. Will Shaw of the RSA Arts and Ecology team covers such issues in more depth on a near daily basis, and I am keen to hear from others, but the question remains: If the most urgent and important question of the day is climate change, what meaningful role, if any, do communities have to play?