Neighborhoods for sustainability

Replacing capitalism

Confined to the logic of commodity exchange, all reformist attempts to mitigate or adapt to ongoing environmental changes such as global warming, ocean acidification, land degradation, freshwater depletion, and loss of biological diversity, are doomed to fail. If biogeochemical indicators could scream, they would. For if it is the commodification of everything that is the real problem of our time – empirical support for this claim has been accumulating over the last two hundred years – market-based mitigation and market-based 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. No matter how many times a false promise is repeated, it is still a false promise; we cannot expect a system to solve problems caused by the very same system. 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 long history of capitalist expropriation and exploitation 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, both fragmenting and monopolizing, automobilization of society. The fact that something is militantly defended by an ultra-rich and powerful elite does not make it more desirable, quite the opposite. Why hold on to something that is inherently destructive? The truth can be distorted or attacked, met with deadly silence or indifference, but our conclusion remains the same: 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; the long history of propaganda and censorship tells us something else.

The constantly evolving reification of ever more disruptive capitalist relations is normalizing the expropriative and exploitative, but this process alone does not prevent us from challenging the combined efforts to defend the dominant social system. The highly institutionalized legitimation of market-solutions only makes it more urgent to reveal how commodity relations are replacing genuine human relations, more necessary to understand the logic that makes the irrational seem rational. Advertising and other forms of corporate propaganda have become common practice, however, what really matters is not hidden from us: society is deeply unequal, racist, and sexist; the ecological rifts between humanity and nature are widening. 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 mid-twentieth century push into the Anthropocene – a new geological epoch defined by human impact and characterized by the crossing of planetary boundaries – will have far-reaching and dire consequences. Hence, it is crucial to acknowledge that the loss of planetary integrity is also the loss of human integrity, the inevitable disintegration of the complex relations that keep us alive. Business as usual will eventually result in no business at all – no trees to cut, no cars to sell, and no profit to be made.

What is to be done can only be done together. Indeed, it is high time to create the next society, the right moment to unite. We have nothing to lose but alienating conditions and a disastrous future. What unites us is the prospect of replacing an undemocratic and unsustainable system with something radically better. As long as 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 – needless to say, not without redefining what it means to live well, not without questioning what is given – we have reason to be hopeful. The transformation to a democratically governed and ecologically literate society requires nothing less than a global revolution, and it is time to seize the moment.

From a survival perspective, it is obvious that we need new, decommodified social and ecological relations, manifested through new forms of democracy and creativity, but also through a scientifically based and democratically controlled system for the preservation of our only planet, powerful enough to put an end to the state-sanctioned, corporate-led crimes against the biosphere. At the local level, the root level of socioecological reproduction, we need to adopt a variety of practices that contribute to the health of the planet and its species.

Socioecological revolution

We are not prisoners of historical and geographical conditions, passive followers lacking the ability to challenge the power structures of capitalism, be they military or financial, overt or covert. 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 do we have to adapt to unsustainable living and working conditions. It is simple: we do not have to accept the unacceptable or give up our right to resist, because our lives and our future are not for sale. It takes courage and a certain kind of determination to act differently, but if we act as if capitalism had lost its influence on us, it is more likely that our actions will create the necessary conditions for our own liberation.

What is necessary is a fundamental shift in power, a democracy freed from plutocrats, party politics, and military 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 hijack our brains. Armed forces would not be used to undermine the right of citizens to assemble. Corrupt politicians would not be in a position to legislate. The list can be made longer. Capitalism has lost much of its legitimacy, but this does not mean that our struggle against state and corporate power has become less relevant, nor does it signal the end of history. The complete failure of capitalism to build a better world, rather marks the beginning of a long socioecological revolution.

We already know that accumulation of capital and concentration of power go hand in hand with human humiliation and planetary degradation. The converse is also true: social trust and an even distribution of power are keys to a better world. Although not without its own challenges, 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, countering all forms of oppression. Today, with the rise of white nationalism and neofascism, the reign of patriarchal violence, it seems more important than ever to stress that there is no other way out.

Despite a deepening planetary crisis and gloomy prospects for humanity, it is still possible to realize a spatial organization of human activities that reverses the negative trends. Thus, there is no reason to stop imagining another social order, free of oppression and full of paths to follow. Or, to put it in geographical terms, as more and more people are pulled or pushed to urban areas, it becomes increasingly important to explore the patterns, processes, and possibilities of these densely populated areas. The city as a catalyst for social change is nothing new, but the scale has changed considerably during the last decades; mega-cities and urban sprawl have rapidly become global phenomena. It is now apparent, more clearly than ever, that cities must become sites of popular power and collective creativity, that we think of them, whatever scale we consider, as socially and technologically interconnected spaces of solidarity, imagination, and collaboration. For if we are to change the world for the better, we need cities and other human settlements 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.

Our goal is not only to occupy space. As united citizens striving for another society, we must bring democracy and creativity back to the human scale, away from the alienating anonymity of multiple-lane highways and global supply chains, away from military bases and financial centers, away from the imperialist order of monopoly capitalism. No matter who we are or where we live, whether we are fleeing a war or risk being incarcerated for being poor: the formation of popular assemblies and institutions that protect our right to associate, our right to shape our common future, always begins in the neighborhood; a participatory society can only be built from below, from the soil up. The question, then, is how neighborhoods of all shapes and sizes, firmly rooted in a solidarity that transcends the artificial barriers between urban and rural areas, goes beyond local and regional scales, and includes other species, 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, born to share our lives with others. 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, connect, and protect independent, nonproprietary alternatives. Given that they are building on the principle of equal access to common resources, these alternatives can aptly be termed commons-based social systems. They are not necessarily local, but human-centric in contrast to the prevailing systems of domination that tend to be money-centric or data-centric. By all accounts, this implies a radical change of focus, moving our conscious actions in a new direction, putting people before profit. As individual and collective, spontaneous and continuous, lifelong creators of free, open, and easily accessible commons, we inevitably become creators of a different kind of society, not structured around artificial scarcity and monopoly markets, but explicitly defined by human needs, ecological knowledge, and a variety of collaborative practices that give hope to humanity.

If these commons are to become widely accepted, they must provide us with alternatives to the global monetary system, replacing money as we know it, that is, as a means of exchange and as a measure of value. This may seem a daunting task, but this is not necessarily the case. The different money forms could actually be replaced with other, more egalitarian forms of social interaction in a relatively short time period. Indeed, with the rapid conceptualization and development of distributed and decentralized social systems that assume equal or near-equal power, we are already in the process of redefining the meaning of value and exchangeability, already undermining the centrality of money as a means of mediation of human relations. Put differently, if we are to end the monopolization and concentration of power, these commons have to be designed and governed in a way that does not allow the few to destroy for the many, including future generations. Still, neighborhood-integrated social systems decoupled from capitalist processes must have certain properties that make it possible to agree upon and contribute to their further development, be reasonably easy to adapt to local conditions, and, consequently, build on social trust.

The creation of neighborhood commons is as much about reshaping democracy and materializing new social systems as it is about the historical-geographical process of forming a decommodified, long-term sustainable relation to nature. Despite being perceived and treated as a free gift to capitalists or the private property of individuals, or, more telling, as if it was unnecessary for our survival, nature has never been an externality, something separate from us. The commodification of nature has turned out to be a dead end for humanity, but it is still a profitable one. It is still legitimate to pollute the atmosphere, to use biocides that are harmful to soil and water organisms, and to keep animals in captivity – all for the sake of profit. Past ignorance is a tragic historical fact, not a good excuse for present or future ignorance. On the contrary, if it is our relation to nature that defines what humanity is and can become, delimiting what kind of society we can create, we can do a lot better. Our creative potential is limited, however, not by the chains of wage labor or any other social restriction imposed on us from above. Our capacity to imagine is one of the things that make us human, but evolutionarily and ecologically we still belong to nature. Whatever our conditions on this planet: how we perceive and socially determine this continually evolving relation to nature has immediate and delayed, real-world consequences. It is our future in the making. Thus, considering that the roots and limits of human creativity are intimately connected to natural ecosystems, it would be unwise and outright dangerous not to explore these connections. If nature-inspired social change is what we need to survive, it is definitely time to reconnect. We are not genetically programmed to live in ignorance.

From single molecules, genes, and epigenetic processes to whole ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles: the complexity and nonlinearity of nature is an unrivaled source of inspiration if we are to change our neighborhoods. The patterns and processes of relatively simple forest ecosystems contrast with the monocultural environments, hardened surfaces, and unidirectional material flows of segregated, car-dependent cities. Both in terms of water holding and nutrient cycling capacity, a natural pond ecosystem can easily be distinguished from an asphalt-paved schoolyard. The complex interactions of natural ecosystems are a good starting point for learning, but what if a radically changed perception of nature could trigger a revolution? The ongoing habitat loss and species extinction – be it through deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices, water pollution, urban sprawl, or warfare – prompt us to act. It is about time that neighborhoods become places where human creativity contributes to healthy ecosystems, places where people of all ages thrive. No one, either present or future citizens, shall be reduced to a living fragment of what we can become, denied a lifelong exploration of our human potential, our innate capacity to learn from nature.

The immediate past is not the best guidebook to the future. 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 demand of diverse, neighborhood-integrated food systems? Why contribute to the pollution of lakes and rivers, when we can recycle soil nutrients? The choice is still ours. The choice has to be ours. By rejecting the reified capitalist version of reality, by adopting property rights and labor rights that serve the common good, and by redesigning our neighborhoods with equality and sustainability in mind, rethinking everything from water use to public health from a commons perspective, we are not trying to reverse history: we are using our creativity for the benefit of all.

Healing the rifts

Ecocreativity can be defined as creativity guided by ecological knowledge and aiming at planetary health. It rests on the assumption that freely and openly communicating, conscious human beings can solve the socioecological problems of our time. Alternatively, we can think of it as a concept intended to restore our sense of urgency and remove our fear of using whatever means necessary to put an end to the socially and ecologically destructive. As such, it is liberating, but only as long as it provokes our thinking, encourages us to act as if we were free to reorganize society. 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 fearlessly explore the possibilities of locally governed systems, neighborly ways to meet human needs.

Ecocreativity is an attempt to conceptualize and realize small to middle-sized social systems built on social trust and global solidarity. Interpreted as a human-centric and commons-based perspective, emphasizing the decentralization and democratization of energy, water, soil, food, shelter, communication, learning, health, and other social systems, it makes explicit the difference between real and fictional dependencies – we cannot eat money. In so doing, it suggests that neighborhoods can become the birthplace of new possibilities and new, holistically mediated interdependencies, indeed, the basis of sustainable human development. Democratically controlled and collectively designed from below, fully functioning ecocreative neighborhoods would then allow us to realize our potential, however, without destroying the biological foundation of all human development.

Ecocreative reproduction is a revolutionary turn, not only replacing creative destruction with creative reconstruction. It turns our attention away from the production and consumption of goods and services toward the reproduction and well-being of all species – the long-term healing of the human-produced ecological rifts. It urges us to think of ourselves as bearers of alternatives and not of values. As globally connected, concerned citizens, deeply involved in the replacement of a rapidly changing mode of destruction with a sustainable mode of reproduction, we would then make room for ecocreative practices of all kinds, that is, radically change – in the most encompassing sense – what it means to be interdependent beings on this planet. As united restorers of degraded, damaged, and destroyed terrestrial and marine ecosystems, we would then live the revolution.

Here we must recognize the need for self-sufficiency, but do not confuse this with self-imposed isolation. It is important to make this distinction, since it helps us to avoid the trap of parochialism. More precisely, in a non-growing, materially closed system like the Earth, self-sufficiency presupposes shared resources, shared experiences, and shared knowledge, which, in turn, presupposes openness of a kind that fosters curiosity and solidarity. In a similar fashion, ecocreative neighborhoods must necessarily be extended neighborhoods, in that they ultimately depend on the functioning of the Earth system as a whole, that is, the complex interactions of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, litosphere, pedosphere, and biosphere. The simple but powerful truth is that we cannot do it alone. In other words, sustainable human development is scale-dependent and intricately linked to all levels of ecological organization; the continual reproduction of any human society 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 reorganizing our neighborhoods, we can all contribute to a sustainable society. Briefly sketched, this is a society with radical democracy; substantive equality; world-wide adoption of ecocreative practices; free access to information and appropriate technology; safe and healthy environments; free and open education and research; and global federations of neighborhood-integrated social commons. It becomes more and more obvious that this is a socialist, biologically and culturally diverse society powered by the sun.