Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
A 2012 report to the Secretary-General of the UN, prepared by the high-level panel on global sustainability and entitled Resilient People, Resilient Planet — A Future Worth Choosing, recommends three broad strategic actions: i) empowering people to make sustainable choices, ii) working towards a sustainable economy, and iii) strengthening institutional governance (UNGSP, 2012, p.79).
The 2013 World Bank report on Building Resilience recommends that the “international community should lead by example by further promoting approaches that progressively link climate and disaster resilience to broader development paths, and funding them appropriately” (World Bank, 2013: ix). In the UK there are now community resilience officers in local councils and the National Health Service.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge — funded with $100 million — says it “is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century”. The initiative will support 100 cities financially to enable them to employ ‘chief resilience officers’ (CROs). The city of San Francisco hired Patrick Otellini as the world’s first CRO in early 2014 and by December 2014 another 64 cities had received funding to support this important whole-systems integration role in their city councils and town halls.
The Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) — the German government’s foresight unit — published a 400-page report in 2011, entitled World in Transition: A New Social Contract for Sustainability. It reviews historical examples of social change and suggests that individual actors and change agents are important drivers of cultural transformation, hence their role should be taken more seriously.
Socio-cultural innovators tend to stimulate change by questioning ‘business as usual’ practices and perspectives and introducing viable alternatives. The report highlights that such change agents appear “frequently from the margins of society where unorthodox thinkers and outsiders are at home” and then the change agents themselves and, more importantly, the issues they have raised begin to gain cultural interest and significance for the wider public and mainstream institutions (WBGU, 2011: 261–262). The way that the ‘community resilience building’ meme has reached the mainstream agenda seems to be an example of this.
At the Rio+20 conference I attended talks and participated in conversations in both the official UN summit programme and various venues of the parallel Cúpula dos Povos Rio+20. One of my highlights was an afternoon at the Forum for Social Entrepreneurship in the New Economy together with Ana Rhodes, then the chair of management at the Findhorn Foundation. We were both inspired by Michel Bauwens’s lucidity about how we are already leveraging global social transformation through local actions powered by global collaboration.
Ashoka’s Dani Matierlo reported back from the event that the overarching credo was that: “we must build a win-win system” and “it must be a system that is a win to the environment as well”. The resounding conclusion was: “[…] there is no better way to change the world than by having all sectors of society come together, to build a world guided by empathy — one in which everyone is a change maker” (Ashoka, 2012).
At the Equator Price Awards, local activists, scientists and change agents from around the world were recognized for “building resilient communities”. UNDP’s Helen Clark started her speech with: “Tonight’s event is about honouring the great innovation and leadership which is coming from the world’s local communities”.
Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change added: “I trust that we all know that we cannot address climate change globally unless communities claim their power to implement solutions — and creative solutions — on the ground.” (EquatorInitiative, 2012). In a truly Brazilian finale, 1,700 attendants fell quiet whilst listening to Gilberto Gil closing with Stevie Wonder’s mystical song about humanity’s need to reconnect with nature and learn from The Secret Life of Plants.
Gilberto Gil singing Stevie Wonder’s ‘Secret Life of Plants’ at the Equator Prize Award after Rio+20, in 2012
Creating regenerative cultures and a regenerative human presence on Earth is first and foremost about re-connection with life as a whole, so that we can re-connect and collaborate with each other in new ways. In theory this should be easy since we were never truly separate, but the narrative of separation is strong and persistent. Profound cultural transformations take time. In a post-Rio+20 event organized by the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and Instituto Ethos, the question was asked:
Q Do we need a new Social Contract to address the sustainable development changes of the 21st century?
Referring back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762), UNITAR’s executive director Carlos Lopez emphasized that Rousseau had been an ‘agent provocateur’ who questioned established ideas with his critique of inequality and call to reconnect with nature. Lopez suggested that the questions Rousseau asked have a new relevance and urgency today (UNITAR, 2012).
Rio+20 was a very mixed bag. I felt disappointed by the way the UN seems to have its hands bound by the big corporate lobbies and a few ‘bully states’. The vibrancy at the people’s summit was a welcome change from the posturing at the official summit, but I wished that ‘the people’, instead of running a parallel event, had created a broader conversation that involved everyone — heads of state and lobbyists included.
The passion and enthusiasm at the Gaia Education/GEN/Transition Towns tent was infectious and nourishing. Overall, what most filled me with hope was that the conversations about local and regional resilience-building and the need for a deeper transformation are now global conversations, offering a common ground for collective action beyond multi-lateral dialogues.
We all need to become change agents who question inequalities and environmental destruction everywhere. We need to ask how we can co-create more equitable cultures that are deeply reconnected to nature and have a regenerative effect on their local and regional ecosystems functions and productivity. At those scales we can create true win- win-win solutions. Resilience thinking is beginning to unite global and local change agents working in civil society, business and governmental institutions in an effort to create a thriving future through global collaboration in support of local implementation.
Outside the circle of academics of the Resilience Alliance who started resilience research four decades ago, grassroots networks and civil society organizations were the first to understand the urgent need for local capacity-building and civic participation in the process of nurturing resilience at the community scale.
Among the early adopters and promoters of the resilience-building approach were the Permaculture Design movement (e.g. Holmgren, 2011; Whitman & Ferguson, 2014), the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN, 2015), the Design for Sustainability training programme of Gaia Education, and since 2006 the rapidly growing global Transition Town movement (Hopkins, 2011 & 2014). The enthusiastic response to the transition town approach by local community groups, first in the UK and then in Europe and globally, has helped to spread the meme of ‘community resilience-building’ to local and national governments around the world, in preparation for climate change and ‘peak oil’.
Q “What if the best responses to peak oil and climate change don’t come from government, but from you and me and the people around us?” — Rob Hopkins (2011)
Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the transition town movement, started his first experiments in community resilience-building in 2004 in the small Irish town of Kinsale, simply taking the opportunity of teaching a permaculture design course at a local community college to develop an ‘energy descent plan’ for the village together with his students. In 2006, he relocated to the Southern English town of Totnes and joined up with Naresh Giangrande and Sophy Banks to start the first transition town initiative.
Within only three years the phenomenon had inspired more than a hundred communities in the UK and elsewhere to create local transition initiatives. By mid-2014 there were more than 1,500 communities around the globe registered with the Transition Network and many thousands of people had taken part in ‘Transition Town Trainings’ facilitated by a global network of transition town trainers. Rob Hopkins (2009) identifies three key design principles that resilience at a community scale depends upon:
Increased diversity: a broader base of livelihoods, land use, enterprise and energy systems than at present.
Modularity (scale-linking design): not advocating self-sufficiency, but rather an increased self-reliance; with surge protectors for the local economy such as local food production and decentralized energy.
Tightness of feedback (increased capacity to learn from local successes or failures): bringing the results of our actions closer to home, so that we cannot ignore them.
Transition town groups around the world tend to be initiated by grassroots activists and educators. Many of them have successfully involved local business owners and gained the support of their local councils. Their success often depends on convincing the more ‘mainstream’ members of their communities to join in, for example through creating community enterprises that strengthen the local economy.
In 2013, the ‘European Association for Information on Local Development’ (AEIDL) published Europe in Transition: Local Communities leading the way to a Low-Carbon Society. The report reviews diverse local initiatives across Europe, including transition towns, ecovillage projects and low-carbon community groups. It shows that in the six years to 2012 the number of participatory, citizen-driven groups has grown from only a few to more than 2,000. This is an excellent example of cultural creative conversations already transforming communities. By collectively asking deeper questions about the future of their communities, and by experimenting with possible local solutions, these groups are contributing to the emergence of regenerative cultures.
“Meeting in living rooms, in local cafés, community centres and other public spaces, the focus is predominantly on practical initiatives that can be taken locally to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the dependence on fossil fuels, and strengthen the resilience and sustainability of local communities. Many of these initiatives involve the testing of new ideas, technologies and approaches in order to find the most sustainable and cost effective solutions. In this way, they act as important local laboratories, piloting and demonstrating how citizens and communities can live more sustainably.” — AEIDL (2013: 3)
[This is an excerpt from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press in 2016.]