The New Environment Association got started in 1974 in Syracuse, New York, in order to awaken people to the urgency of, and to involve them in:
- learning how to view environmental and social problems in a holistic way
- rethinking the way of life we have become accustomed to
- exploring new economic and social principles that can lead to sustainability
- working together cooperatively to implement those principles, and
- creating new communities that are humanly and environmentally sound, in other words, sustainable.
(From New Environment Bulletin No. 366 — Nov. 11, 2008)
The notion of COMMUNITY has been and is central to the New Environment undertaking. Why is that so? The answer has several parts to it, and here is an attempt to elucidate some of them.
(a) Some day, many people in the U.S. will wake up and realize that the world isn’t what they learned from their parents or in school, what the media and the politicians have been telling them, … what they thought was a solid basis to build their lives on: work hard, forget about or get ahead of others, and you’ll be able to have a fine life.
In fact, quite a few people have been waking up recently, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. One experience that could have wakened some of them up is that they suddenly find themselves without a job and with no prospect of getting another one. Or perhaps they found their quiet homestead suddenly surrounded by masses of rubble and the water supply poisoned because the top of their beloved nearby mountain has just been blasted away for mountaintop mining. Or they might have experienced the tragedy of a close friend or relative killed in a shooting, or a bombing attack. Or perhaps they weren’t able to keep up with their rising mortgage payments and lost their home. One could compile a long list of quite diverse personal disasters occurring almost daily.
Unfortunately, many of the good people who find themselves caught up in one or another of such disastrous circumstances don’t wake up. They blame themselves, or fate, or their bad luck, or an angry God.
But those people who do wake up, what do they see when they open their eyes and look at the world anew? They realize that they’ve been taken advantage of; that the various levels of government, their town, their society, are not the kind of stabilizing and supportive force they had believed would be there for them in a time of dire need. They may even suspect that their fate is the result of plots that have been hatched in board rooms or government chambers far away — as was the case for millions of farming folks who were driven off their land in the American Midwest by post-World War II government policies designed to accomplish just that. And many also realize they seem to have no one to turn to, have no recourse. What they probably don’t realize is that the situation they find themselves in could be quite different if they had been part of a far-flung network of strong cooperative and supportive communities. Such communities can have a positive influence in the larger scheme of things and the larger and the more resourceful they are, the more they can stand their ground against exploitative forces. The importance of strong communities in less developed parts of the world and in native societies was illustrated at our last General Meeting.
In other words, communities of the right kind can be a hedge against the vagaries of an uncertain future and provide a measure of stability. What that means in the context of the New Environment Association is this: If we really value each human being, as expressed in our Statement of Concern, then we ought to create arrangements that express and implement that noble thought. In other words, we need to evolve and experiment with community settings that provide support and encouragement to each individual as needed, and that can be exported and taught to others wherever they are.
(b) “Creating a New Environment,” which is simplified language for “creating a new psychophysical complex”, has very little to do with changing light bulbs and recycling your newspaper. It is, rather, an altogether daunting undertaking. That’s because it has to do with changing how we think — about ourselves, about others, about society, about the world.
If we really want to live sustainably, in harmony with the natural world and in peace with each other, we have to become different people, so to speak. Merely having some laws or a set of guidelines won’t do the trick. This is evident from the long history of attempts to establish World Peace — and World Peace is only one particular aspect of the New Environment. As H.G. Wells has pointed out already in 1929, “a real world peace movement must be a revolutionary movement in politics, finance, industrialism, and the daily life alike.” (See Wells’ The Common Sense of World Peace, which is summarized in Bulletin #141.) What is true for a world peace movement certainly applies even more to a world New Environment movement.
But this kind of “revolutionary movement” is not something that can be set in motion with well-meaning admonishments, rallies, fiery speeches, protests and the like. It takes a lot of introspection, study, exploration and experimentation, and that can’t be carried out in a vacuum but requires the active involvement of real people. Where is it possible to do this? In a supportive community where the people are all part of this exploration. Where can the new ways of thinking that get developed be put into practice — in daily life, in the physical arrangements, in the economic arrangements, and so on? In a supportive community, which then becomes a vanguard of New Environment evolution. Where can children be brought up and educated in these new ways of thinking right from early childhood on up? In a supportive community that not only talks about but actually lives, teaches, and further develops New Environment principles.
On the other hand, any small and larger increments of progress toward a New Environment will quickly get washed away by the constant onslaught of societal forces, unless that progress is anchored — and gets practiced and reinforced — in some kind of community or communities. The more substantial and physically grounded these communities are, the greater is the potential for continuity and an on-going evolutionary process.
(c) One reason it is hard to move beyond mere belt tightening when it comes to taking steps toward more sustainable living is that it is very difficult to assess the impact of our actions. Everyone is a microscopic wheel in the huge global economy. When I eat a banana, am I supporting a farm worker in Central America or am I helping a large corporation buy up land from indigenous farmers? As we have discussed in the New Environment Association repeatedly, the rampant technologies, rampant organizational structures and other rampant phenomena into which we are connected are so huge that we are mostly unaware of the fact that we are doing their bidding. Also, the frightening excesses of which large and powerful governments are capable have been demonstrated throughout the last century. And that trend certainly has not been abated during this first decade of the 21st century. These are all problems of giantism.
In Small is Beautiful and elsewhere, E.F. Schumacher has discussed the evils of giantism at great length and called for a return to living at a human scale. That isn’t “going back into the past.” It is going forward, and leaving behind what may have been useful at some time but is now destructive.
“Human scale” is a way of living that is surveyable by the individual human being. It allows a person to perceive and understand the effects of individual actions. It empowers a person because he or she can see and assess the impact of various actions. It can make a tremendous difference for children to grow up seeing that they can have a positive effect in their world and make meaningful contributions as part of their daily activities — that they can be in charge. That’s not child labor, it’s everyone having a chance to lend a hand with planting or harvesting, household chores and animal care, etc., according to their ability. This can happen quite naturally in a cooperative community. A community of modest size is the best setting for human-scale living. It offers a greater diversity of experience than an individual homestead.
(d) Many dangerous forces have been unleashed in the world that could spell doom for a significant portion of humanity and possibly all of life. Of course, climate change has been getting a lot of attention, but there are others as well. We still have not put to rest the nuclear genie and the potential use of other weapons of mass destruction. The potential exists for major resource wars. With further growth in the world’s human population projected to result not only in many more giant cities but also vast slums, what is the chance of huge epidemics and also mass starvation? And I have received a copy of a letter from C.A. Hilgartner to the President of the Swiss Confederation, begging that the Large Hadron Collider recently built in Switzerland not be allowed to operate. (It malfunctioned during a first attempt at a trial run and is currently shut down for repairs.) His argument is that we don’t know what kind of chain reaction such a concentration of energy might produce; and even if the likelihood of a disaster — of possibly global proportions — may be very remote, certainty about its safety should not be achieved by actually conducting the experiment. And then one wonders what other hazardous technologies are in the works?
I don’t mean to suggest that a large-scale disaster in the near future is very likely. But human existence has always been precarious, with lots of uncertainty. The difference now is the enormous size of the population, which doesn’t leave much room to maneuver. Another difference is the absence of effective local support systems. Still another difference is that, nowadays, survival requires a much, much greater infrastructure to be maintained than was the case even just a hundred years ago. In other words, mere survival considerations alone point to the advisability of supportive communities.
A New Environment community presumably will develop a way of being and operating that gives it a good survival potential in difficult times. And it will be able to pass on a valuable legacy to later generations.
(e) The human being is a social animal. Human beings have evolved over millions of years as members of close-knit communities. And this sense of community extended beyond human groups to include parts — if not all — of the natural world. Community is in our bones. But it is not in our heads. Over the last few hundred years or so, gradually more and more humans have been taught to dispense with community and thus deny their inherent nature — and instead to compete, to exploit, to dominate, to ruthlessly pursue one’s own advantage. The better someone has learned these lessons, the more is that person rewarded, and the more power is that person able to amass. The effects of this mode of operating have brought us to the crisis situations that now dominate world affairs.
There are stopgap measures that can be implemented to temporarily stave off major environmental, financial, political, social and other breakdowns. But if the underlying dynamic is not also fundamentally altered, the human species is in serious jeopardy.
How can this underlying dynamic be fundamentally changed? How is it possible to transform what has been diligently built up over hundreds of years and has by now been cast in steel, concrete and glass all over the place? By diligently building up something new.
Who will do this? Anyone who, first of all, has grasped what it is that needs to be done, as well as the urgency of it. And of the people who have understood this, it is those who, in addition, are able to stay with that understanding and act on it.
But this is much too difficult an undertaking for any one person to carry out by him- or herself. What then does it take? You know the answer: a community of people! A community that evolves and lives, as much as possible, the principles it tries to teach. And this community of people will be able to accomplish important things. But if these folks don’t get carried away by the novelty of their community — if they haven’t forgotten what it is they set out to do — then they will also recognize that their impact is much too limited to have a significant effect on the larger scheme of things. So they realize that their most important task is to multiply their numbers, to help initiate many more communities resembling their own.