Neighborhoods for sustainability

Capitalism or sustainability

All reformist attempts to mitigate or adapt to environmental changes such as global warming, ocean acidification, land degradation, freshwater depletion, and biodiversity loss are doomed to fail. Both market-driven mitigation and market-driven adaptation are dangerous games to play if it is the reduction of everything to markets that is the problem. To be clear, sustainability strategies and measures are counterproductive – and threaten our survival – as long as they avoid the root cause of the planetary crisis: the capitalist system.

The inconvenient truth is that this crisis-prone global system is incompatible with sustainable human development. Or, to put it another way, what is it that makes capitalism the preferred social system, considering what we know about social equality or ecological sustainability? The fact that something is protected by a powerful minority does not make it more legitimate. What really matters is not hidden from us: society is deeply unequal, racist, and sexist; the ecological rift between humanity and the rest of nature is real and growing.

Viewed against the background of rapidly changing conditions for life on Earth, it is not an overstatement to say that we are heading in the wrong direction. On the contrary, there is reason to fear that the continuing exploitation of human beings and the crossing of planetary boundaries – the push into the Anthropocene – will have far-reaching consequences. Business as usual will eventually result in no business at all.

What is to be done can only be done together. Indeed, it is high time to create the next society. We are determined to replace an undemocratic and destructive system with something radically better – and we are hopeful. We believe that it is possible to solve the crisis, possible to create a society that allows us to live well within the planetary boundaries. However, the transformation to a democratically governed and ecologically literate society requires a global revolution.

From a survival perspective, it is obvious that we need new forms of democracy and new forms of creativity, but also a well-functioning governance framework for the preservation of our only planet; the state-sanctioned, corporate-led crimes against the biosphere must stop. At the local level, the root level of psychosocial and socioecological reproduction, we need a variety of initiatives for more interactive relations to the web of life, to everything from the food we eat to the people around us.

Democracy and creativity

Although the crisis is deep and the future uncertain, there is no reason to stop imagining the good life. As more and more people live in cities, it becomes increasingly important to realize our constantly developing potential together with others and, more specifically, to explore the possibilities of the urban. More than ever, cities must become spaces of popular power and collective creativity, that is, democratically governed, interconnected places of solidarity and social imagination. For if we are to change the world for the better, we need cities that unite us, give voice to the oppressed and excluded, and allow us to transform ourselves and our common habitat in a sustainable direction. We have a long way to go. We are creative beings in search of unsustainable spaces, public and private, and we have just begun to fight. This is a call for participation and democratization. This is a struggle for rights. This is the beginning of citizen-led transformation of social and ecological relations.

We already know that concentration of power in the hands of the few goes hand in hand with human humiliation and planetary degradation. The converse is also true: social trust and an even distribution of power and influence are keys to a better society. The necessary transformation of society can only be radically democratic and radically creative, which literally means more power to change and more control over our lives. There is no other way out.

The result is a fundamental shift in governance. Freed from plutocratic power and party politics, democracy would go from being representative and intermittent to becoming direct and practiced on a daily basis, deeply concerned with the common good. Trapped within paywalls, corporate media would not be allowed to influence our minds, our sense of urgency and possibility; cut off from the governing of society, financial institutions would not be allowed to dictate our lives.

We are not prisoners of historical and geographical conditions. It is self-deceptive, therefore, to think of ourselves as borrowers, consumers, employees, house owners, voters, or any other category that serves to distract, disempower, or divide us. Our lives are not for sale. We are not bound to follow the dictates of the market, nor are we willing to abandon our right to resist. If we think and act as if capitalism had lost its influence on us, it is more likely that we will become free.

As united citizens striving for another society, we must bring democracy and creativity back to the human scale. No matter who we are or where we live: the formation of popular assemblies and institutions that protect our right to the city, our right to shape our common future, always begins in the neighborhood; a participatory society can only be built from below. The question, then, is how neighborhoods of all shapes and sizes can contribute to a more equal and sustainable society? How do we make it happen?

Ecocreative neighborhoods

Nature is not an externality even if it is treated like that. Destructive or not, our relation to nature determines what we can become, what kind of society we can create – that is, the realm of possibilities. Our creative potential is limited, but not by arbitrary social restrictions imposed on us from above. Our capacity to imagine is one of the things that makes us human, however, evolutionarily and ecologically we still belong to nature. If the roots and limits of human creativity are intimately connected to natural ecosystems, it would be unwise to ignore this. If nature-inspired systemic change is what we need to survive, it is time to reconnect.

From single molecules to whole ecosystems: the complexity of nature is an unrivaled source of inspiration if we are to change our neighborhoods. The complex patterns and processes of relatively simple forest ecosystems contrast with the monocultural environments, hardened surfaces, and linear flows of segregated, car-dependent cities. Put differently, the expropriation of nature and the continuing loss of biological and ecological complexity – through deforestation, soil destruction, groundwater pollution, urban sprawl, warfare, etc. – prompt us to act. The choice is still ours, the moment is now.

By favoring communal property rights and by redesigning our neighborhoods with equality and sustainability in mind, rethinking everything from water use to public health from an ecosystem perspective, we defy the spatial logic of capitalism. New possibilities will emerge, new questions will arise. Why replicate the errors of profit-driven city planning when we can learn from water, trees, and honey bees? Why give wasteful supermarkets and disruptive food companies access to our cities when we are in great need of diverse, neighborhood-integrated food systems? Why contribute to the pollution of the oceans when we can recycle soil nutrients?

Ecocreativity (or ecological creativity) can be defined as creativity guided by ecological knowledge. It rests on the assumption that freely and openly communicating, conscious human beings can solve the psychosocial and socioecological problems of our time. An ecocreative approach to human development does not substitute prevention and precaution with technological quick fixes, but is not hostile to technology. It reminds us that we are free to use appropriate technology and collaborative tools in a responsible manner, free to use ecological knowledge for the common good. Far from providing a ready-made solution, it invites us to explore the possibilities of locally governed systems, communalist ways to meet the needs of human beings.

Ecocreativity is an attempt to conceptualize and realize holistic systems – that is, integrated energy, water, soil, food, shelter, health, learning, and communication systems. It suggests that neighborhoods can become the basis for sustainable human development. Democratically controlled and collectively designed from below, fully functioning ecocreative neighborhoods would then allow us to realize our human potential, however, without destroying the foundation of all human development: the biosphere.

Lifelong curiosity

It is difficult to imagine a sustainable society without ecologically literate, socially responsible, critically thinking people, difficult to imagine how sustainable neighborhood transformation would be possible without learning of some kind; we are learning beings, and as such both curious and collaborative. As individual and collective creators of a new society, not defined by artificial scarcity and monopoly markets but by human needs, ecological complexity, and a variety of sharing practices, we are also creators of a new knowledge paradigm.

Ecocreative neighborhood learning is a liberating practice that intends to create free, open, and easily accessible ecological knowledge commons. By interpreting learning as a lifelong, transformative process, and by linking ecological knowledge to peer-to-peer learning and participatory research, it aims to facilitate the creation of holistic frameworks for neighborhood interaction.

Healing the rift

Ecocreative neighborhood reproduction is a revolutionary turn, not only replacing creative destruction with creative reconstruction. It redirects our attention away from the production and consumption of products and services towards the reproduction and well-being of all species – the long-term healing of the ecological rift. Globally connected, concerned citizens, deeply involved in the replacement of an exploiting, expropriating, and waste generating mode of production with a sustainable mode of reproduction, must necessarily be at the center of such a shift.

As united restorers of degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems – reproducers of healthy ones – we must strive for minimal resource use, closed material flows, and the phasing out of the entire fossil-fuel sector. Here we must recognize the need for self-governance and self-sufficiency, but do not confuse this with self-imposed isolation. The simple but powerful truth is that sustainable human development is scale-dependent and intricately linked to all levels of ecological organization; the continual reproduction of society is simply impossible without the continual reproduction of nature in its entirety.

By rethinking and rebuilding our neighborhoods, we can all contribute to a sustainable society. In our view, this is a society with democratic governance at all levels; ecocreative practices at all levels; free access to information and appropriate technology; safe and healthy environments for all; free education and research; neighborhood-controlled water, food, and energy systems; and globally connected, collaborative networks of neighborhoods, cities, and regions. This is a revolutionary, biologically and culturally diverse society powered by the sun.