Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sustainable Communities vs. Survivalists

As the economy takes a turn for the worse, there appears to be two main camps of thought out there as to how to prepare for the future. Some folks say, "leave the cities" and "head for the hills," fence themselves in with barbed wire and arm themselves, hoping the nearest neighbor is many many miles away. Then there are those who believe in fostering community sustainability, supporting the local economy, and going green. Often times these two groups also have some strong political divides, but that is not the issue I wish to discuss today.

What I am pondering is, which makes more sense in the long run? Which communities will fare better under extreme economic stresses? The "head for the hills" folks foresee all out chaos and anarchy, rampant crime, and roving bands of thugs. Interestingly enough, however is that with the current downturn, crime has actually been dropping. See author Neil Howe's "Lifecourse Blog" for one of his latest observations on crime and generational cycles.

The vision many folks have is that similar to a picture straight out of a romantic action-packed movie....society collapses, family goes to "bug-out" location that is miles away from civilization, they have the comfort of a wood stove, canned goods, maybe a howling blizzard outside and a transistor radio blaring with the bad news of what is going on around them, miles away. Some bad guys come, the family gets their guns and there is a shoot out. Of course, in the movie, the family wins. At the end, they are the last people on earth, and they walk out of their location to marvel at the desolation and destruction they missed. But is this practical? Is this realistic?

People need people. After examining the last Depression, and my grandparent's stories of those times, that what will benefit people the most is having strong communities that come together. Many people look at other places around the world who have undergone collapse and assume things will play out exactly the same as they have there. One problem with this assumption...we are Americans.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who studied America in the early 1800s was surprised to find traits in Americans that were very contrary to European character. He saw that Americans had strength in social order, were woven by a strong thread that historically was rooted in church community, and had moral values with a strong sense of volunteerism and charity:

"In the end, the state of the Union comes down to the character of the people. ... I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors, her ample rivers, and it was not there. I sought for it in the fertile fields, and boundless prairies, and it was not there. I sought it in her rich mines, and vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power." -Alexis de Tocqueville

Common causes had united Americans. But with so many denominations, how did they stay united? Again, this leads back to a sense of baseline moral obligation combined with community ties. The moral sense is most important, for without it we are lost.

The world gasped when the towers in New York fell on 9-11, and waited in anticipation for Americans to react, to riot, for fear to take hold, for us to give up. The world judges in error. 9-11 showed the heart of what Americans are made of, and as heroes rushed to the burning towers, and the citizens of New York responded to the crisis, the world was puzzled, dumbstruck, and in awe at the reaction. Americans rise up in the face of crisis, and should not be underestimated.

That leads back to our discussion of "head for the hills" or "band together."

When economy crumbles, when disaster strikes, when sickness calls, people need people. There are advantages in skill sharing, in trade bartering, and in living in a sustainable community. There also needs to be a common sense of morality, of ethics, and of purpose, as Tocqueville observes. I believe the more and more people work together, take pride in their community, and focus on making their community a better place to live, when times get tough, this will help us pull through the next crisis.

To see some examples of vision for a sustainable community, check out SCALLOPS: Sustainable Communities All Over Puget Sound. Do you have any other great examples of models for a sustainable community? If so I would love to hear about it!


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