Community is the Linchpin


Community is the Linchpin

By Dr.Leslie Jermyn

Community is … responsibility

Community is … rights

Community is … imaginary

Community is … a false dilemma

Community is … communication

Community is … happiness

Community is … powerful

Community is … essential

One hears a lot about community these days but apart from the fact that community is a word that is always used positively, it isn’t easy to discern what precisely it means. The reason for this obfuscation is that community does not jive with our current cultural fixation on the individual. They don’t fit together nicely. That means that while we talk a big story about the fantastic power of community, we don’t very often do much about creating or sustaining it. However, without the fabric of community, many of the other good things we try to do become weightless or insignificant or meaningless and we lose our will and our commitment. Let’s consider what community really is and how to create it in order to understand why we need it.

Community is … responsibility

Might just as well get the bad news out in the open. Community is not happy picnics in the park and street festivals, although these can definitely play a role. Community is taking responsibility for our selves and the consequences of our actions on others. This requires putting individual desires and goals second to those of the wider group.

To take an example, an individual can decide that their self-worth hinges on driving a big car and simply buy one if they can afford it. End of story. In the net of responsible community, however, the individual recognizes the consequences of that decision for everyone else: the air and noise pollution that will affect all who live near the roads and highways; the global environmental consequences of drilling, piping, shipping and refining the oil products the car needs; the consequences of the production of the metals, plastics and non-oil chemicals the car is made up of; the psychological consequences of creating traffic jams and gridlock; the safety consequences for pedestrians and cyclists; and so on. In the wider grid of community, the decision takes on a more serious tone and requires deep consideration. Can all these community consequences be justified to satisfy an individual desire? Perhaps the individual also drives for local charities and volunteer groups; perhaps the car will be part of a car-pooling network; perhaps there is no alternative to driving but the individual will pay more for a hybrid. These would be counterweights to the negative and may, in the end, justify the car. The point is that in community, we take responsibility for our actions.

On the positive side, in community, we also have rights.

Community is … rights

Community is not all about squashed desires, onerous obligations and deep guilt. As active members of a community, we also enjoy benefits like having the right to express our views to a respectful audience, and having the right to expect the same consideration from others that we show them. Members of a community can expect more from one another so that responsibility swings both ways: you are responsible to them, they to you. If your neighbour (local or global) is dumping toxics into your water supply, you can tell them to stop and expect to get some kind of reasonable response.

That sounds good but here we are back at the elusive, ‘what is community’ problem because this doesn’t sound very much like most people’s reality.

Community is … imaginary

What I mean by this is not imaginary in the sense of ‘make-believe’ or false, but imaginary in the sense that it first must exist in our heads before it will exist on the ground. Some people grew up in a real community so they know that it exists because people believe in it; because they do weigh personal and communal consequences of their actions; because they do believe there is a unit greater than the individual that conditions their lives. The less fortunate among us, don’t have this experience to draw on and may feel at a loss about how to create community out of the countless strangers in our lives and on our planet.

To take the first step, simply believe that you are a member of something greater than yourself and act accordingly. Make thinking like this normal rather than exceptional. When you go shopping, think about the workers who made the things you want to buy as part of your imaginary community – if they weren’t treated well or paid properly, don’t buy the item. Think about the pollution created to manufacture the goods you buy and the pollution they will leave behind when you throw them away – if you can’t do something to mitigate this waste, don’t buy the product. Think about the transportation to get the product to you and if you don’t really need it, don’t buy it. Think about the local businesses that suffer when we buy from big chains, if you can get it locally, do so. And so on…

But what if you’re the only one thinking like this?

Community is … a false dilemma

One of the reasons people reject making these tough decisions about their personal habits and conveniences is that they fall into the trap of the prisoner’s dilemma. That’s when two actors benefit enormously by cooperating (as in community) but if only one cooperates and the other acts in his or her own interest, the individualist benefits a lot and the cooperator loses a lot. This notion is used by economists to predict our behaviour and shows up in lots of ways in mass media. We believe that if we don’t take every opportunity to get what we can, how we can and to heck with the consequences, then we will be the lone cooperator who loses big time while all the individualists benefit from our sacrifices. Despite the fact that this is what we are led to believe conditions the world, it’s a false dilemma that doesn’t reflect the real world. Let’s look the example of buying a car to clarify.

The prisoner’s dilemma would have us believe that the person who sacrifices car ownership for a cleaner environment loses against all those not willing to make the sacrifice. However, one less car on the road does mean less pollution, less waste, less gridlock, fewer accidents and a quieter neighbourhood. The car-less sacrificer does benefit rather than lose.

Ah, but you say, what if I’m the only one sacrificing, surely then it’s a waste of time and effort?

Community is … communication

In the off chance that there is only one person in the whole world making a sacrifice, then perhaps the prisoner’s dilemma would carry some weight, but that is simply not the reality. This is a very good time to be alive if you’re choosing responsibly because there are thousands, millions, of other people doing the same thing, the trick is to find them and let them know you’re one of them. This requires communication.

I once saw a woman on a bicycle with a milk crate strapped to the back for carrying things. On her milk crate, she had a sticker that said “One less SUV.” At the next traffic light, I pulled my bike up to hers and remarked on the sticker and we had a brief conversation about cycling rather than driving. That was a magic moment because we each knew for that moment that our hard work in the hot summer sun was not in vain, that we were part of something larger and that others shared our commitment to the environment. We found community in strangers through communication.

You don’t have to go around covered in buttons and stickers to make the point, although some people do this rather creatively. You can also join web groups and listserves, join local organizations, subscribe and write for magazines or newsletters, make your own publications, talk to people at parties or on the bus or use any of the dozens of communication media we have at our disposal these days to let people know you are a community player and to find others like yourself. You can also create a very personal web of community by educating your friends and family to respect your decisions. With patience and persistence, you would be surprised to find out how many people are willing to make similar choices if they know it’s important to someone they love.

But that sounds like a lot of hard work, is it really worth it to choose the community path?

Community is … happiness

Okay, that sounds pretty corny but it is nevertheless true. It turns out that people who are deeply satisfied with their lives tend to have tight personal networks of friends and family and tend to have a thoughtful and moral relationship with their world. They don’t ‘sacrifice,’ they choose to put the communal ahead of the personal because it makes them feel good about themselves and the world – it makes them happy. This happiness doesn’t spring from some arrogant sense of altruism but from the rewards of being close to other denizens of our planet (human and non-human) and from believing that actions have positive consequences.

We have come a long way from a moral order that tells us the common good is the right way but we can find it again. Individualism is a cultural product of the last few hundred years which makes it seem ‘natural’ and inevitable, but it’s really historical and changeable. That kind of shift will take time and effort, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the fight.

But it’s still not clear that a few, or few thousand, people choosing community over individual rights will ever make a difference.

Community is … powerful

Some people have chosen to create and sustain communities by dropping out of or away from the everyday world of individualism. They realized that it’s hard work creating and sustaining this alternative way of thinking and being in the middle of the government and business pressures to behave as a maximizing prisoner-individual. Dropping out is one way to nurture alternatives but it’s not necessary. One can also promote community by staying in the thick of things and promoting links among community forging groups and ideas; by letting businesses and governments know how you want them to value people and the planet; by acting as an example to others and so on. It took a long time to shift people away from valuing the common good and it may take a long time to shift them back, but it will happen because the individualist path is bankrupt. More people everyday wake up to the realization that hyper-consumerism is a dead-end street; that ‘quality-time’ with family does not replace quantity of time; that gadgets do not take the place of people; and that they are dissatisfied with the amorality of ‘every prisoner for himself.’ This is growing into a global political movement of impressive proportions that is wracking up successes, small and large, all over the planet.

 Community is … essential

It needs to be said that without a moral order of rights and responsibilities, all the rest won’t work. Human rights, environmental protection and sustainability are all based on a moral code that says that communal interests trump individual interests. To ignore this fact will make the project of promoting sustainability fail. A sustainable life is one that doesn’t compromise other lives (now or in the future) and that means there has to be recognition of equal rights to resources. That doesn’t mean everyone has to have the same stuff, only that no one (human or non-human) is left without enough (air, water, food, habitat etc.) to live. To work toward this goal requires a moral commitment – a deep recognition of community rights and responsibilities. To put this simply, buying organic only because it’s better for one’s health means ignoring the fact that local food is better for everyone than organics from a distance. Our choices have to consider the common good over individual benefits if they are to have lasting impact. A life without morality is not carefree or fun, it is empty of meaning and in the end, quite depressing. Conversely, living morally is not boring or oppressive, it is fulfilling and happy. This runs counter to the usual advertising for individualism we are brought up with and so many people doubt that it’s true but since we know hyper-individualism does not lead to happiness, we might as well give the alternative a try…

The community is local, as in family or neighbourhood, but also encompasses the globe; it is the community of today but also of the next generation; it is a human community but also includes the whole biosphere. Each of us is part of this whole and by recognizing that, we can make it real again.


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