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. If it is the commodification of everything that is the real problem of our time – as far as we know, there is no empirical support for the opposite position – market-driven mitigation and market-driven adaptation are extremely dangerous games to play. To be clear, sustainability strategies and measures are deceptive, counterproductive, and threaten our survival unless they address 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 militantly defended by a powerful minority does not make it more desirable or more legitimate. The long history of capitalist exploitation and expropriation is well-documented and includes, but is not limited to, slavery and child labor; the extraction and burning of coal and other fossil fuels; soil erosion, deforestation, and habitat destruction associated with large-scale monocultural agriculture; systematic coercion and surveillance of workers; and the extensive automobilization of society. The burden of proof is not ours. What we can learn from these examples is that whatever their origin or justification, social changes are neither inevitable nor inescapable, which give us reason to oppose all efforts to defend the present system.

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 a growing reality. 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 and dire consequences. It is crucial to acknowledge that the loss of ecological integrity is also the loss of human integrity, the disintegration of the complex relations that keep us alive. 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 social system 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, de-alienated social relations, new, non-commodified forms of democracy and 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 socioecological reproduction, we need a variety of initiatives that restore the health of the planet and its species.

Democracy and creativity

We are not prisoners of historical and geographical conditions, passive followers lacking the ability to challenge the power structures of capitalism. It is self-deceptive, therefore, to think of ourselves as borrowers, consumers, employees, house owners, party members, or any other category that serves to distract, disempower, or divide us. We are not bound to follow the dictates of the market, nor are we obliged to accept unsustainable living conditions. It is as simple as breathing: we do not have to accept the unacceptable or give up our right to resist, because our lives are not for sale. It takes courageous people to act differently, but if we act as if capitalism had lost its influence on us, it is more likely that we will take the first steps towards freedom.

What is necessary is a fundamental shift in governance, a democracy freed from plutocrats, party politics, and paramilitary interventions. Cut off from the governing of society, financial institutions would not be allowed to dictate our lives. Trapped within paywalls, corporate media would not be allowed to influence our sense of urgency and possibility. No one would be allowed to track our movements, collect and sell user data, let alone take over our minds. Armed forces would not be used to undermine the right of citizens to assemble. Corrupt politicians would not be in a position to legislate. This is more than a struggle against state and corporate power. This is the beginning of a socioecological revolution.

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 world. 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. Ideally, democracy would go from being representative and intermittent to becoming direct and practiced on a daily basis, deeply concerned with the common good. Today, with the rise of neofascism, it is obvious that there is no other way out.

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 urban areas, it becomes increasingly important to realize our constantly developing potential together and, more specifically, to explore the patterns, processes, and possibilities of these areas. The city as a catalyst for social change is nothing new, but the scale is; urban sprawl and mega-cities have become a global reality. It has become apparent, more clearly than ever, that cities must become sites of popular power and collective creativity, that is, democratically governed, interconnected spaces of solidarity and 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. This is a long and winding path, and we have just begun to walk together.

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? How do we begin the citizen-led transformation of social and ecological relations?

It is difficult to imagine a sustainable society without literate, responsible, critically thinking people, difficult to imagine sustainable neighborhood transformation without social interactions; we are social beings, and as such both critical and communicative, curious and collaborative. With public education under neoliberal attack and mainstream media controlled by a few large corporations, it becomes paramount to be in charge of our social reality, in short, to create and protect independent, non-proprietary alternatives. These can aptly be termed distributed or decentralized, commons-based forms of social systems. They are not necessarily local, but human-centric rather than money-centric. As individual and collective, spontaneous and continuous, lifelong creators of free, open, and easily accessible commons, we are also creators of a different kind of society, not defined by artificial scarcity and monopoly markets but by human needs, ecological knowledge, and a variety of sharing practices. This is not only a social transformation process. Aside from redefining democracy and materializing a new social reality, we are deeply involved in the historical-geographical process of forming a new relation to nature.

Despite being treated as if it was unnecessary for our survuival, nature is not an externality, something separate from us. Destructive or not, our relation to nature determines what we can become, what kind of society we can create – in other words, our 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 social change is what we need to survive, it is definitively 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 – be it through deforestation, soil destruction, groundwater pollution, urban sprawl, or warfare – prompt us to act. 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. 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? The choice is still ours.

Healing the rift

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 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 social systems, small to middle-sized, ecologically integrated energy, water, soil, food, shelter, health, learning, and communication commons. It suggests that neighborhoods can become the birthplace of new interdependencies and new possibilities, indeed, 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.

Ecocreative 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, and, concurrently, 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, will necessarily be at the center of such a shift. As united restorers of degraded, damaged, and destroyed terrestrial and marine ecosystems, we are encouraged to make room for ecocreative practices, indeed, to radically change what it means to be interdependent human beings on this planet.

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 at all scales is simply impossible without the continual reproduction of nature in its entirety.

Another world is not only possible, it is within reach. By rethinking and relinking 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; free and open education and research; neighborhood-integrated commons; and globally connected, collaborative networks of neighborhoods, cities, and regions. This is a revolutionary, biologically and culturally diverse society powered by the sun.