Building The Movement

We CAN make our communities humane and sustainable.
And now's the time to do it!

One of the articles in We Can Do It! (IC#33)
Originally published in Fall 1992 on page 56
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

As the articles in this issue illustrate, the 1990s provide communities with major new opportunities, daunting challenges, and growing urgency. In this article I’d like to draw some of these threads together and look at how community-based action could be helped and supported.


At the same time as the institutions and habits of our society have grown more out-of-touch with our emerging environmental, social, and economic reality, the opportunities for genuine improvements have grown substantially:

  • Energy and Resource Use. The San Jose and PG&E stories (see pages 13 and 50) illustrate a start toward what is possible. Technologies that permit 1) the efficient use of energy and other resources and 2) enable the switch to renewable and nontoxic resources have improved rapidly in capability and cost-effectiveness, and promise to keep doing so for many years to come. Moving to these technologies is one of the best win-win opportunities currently available to communities.

  • Land-Use and Transportation. The current land- use patterns of 1) single-use zoning and 2) giving first priority to automobiles over other forms of transportation have done much more than give us long commutes, congestion, and pollution. They have also profoundly eroded our connections to our neighbors and thus gutted the foundation of community life.

    Communities now have the opportunity to gain major interconnected benefits by introducing multiple-use zoning; this would enable people to reintegrate home, work, and shopping in a single neighborhood, and support biking, walking, and other non-automotive forms of transport

  • Social Institutions. The revitalization of community grows out of and provides rich social interaction. One important dimension of this is the interaction between children and seniors. The story of Ethel (see page 19) provides a glimpse of what is possible. A richer community life could also provide support for all kinds of life-long learning, such as study circles (see page 22).

    And, just as much can be done with energy efficiency, there are "social technologies" that are more efficient (economically as well as socially), such as using mediation instead of litigation for dispute resolution. Indeed, any community that is willing to set aside the goal of individualistic isolation will discover a rich array of social changes that can improve quality of life, often reduce costs, and simply avoid many current social problems.

  • Economic Life. The old idea of gaining the economic "good life" by competing with other communities to get some big corporation to put a factory in your community is looking pretty hollow these days. Instead, it is growing clearer that economic vitality and resiliency come from a high percentage of locally owned businesses and from a low dependence on outside sources for such basics as food, energy, and capital. There are a wide range of proven techniques, from micro-enterprise lending (see page 32) to the development of Mondragon-type cooperatives (see IC #32, page 58), that can be used at a community level.

  • Synergies. Many of the benefits from these opportunities build on and enhance each other. For example, as the San Jose story illustrates (see page 13), one of the most successful community economic strategies is to improve our environmental behavior through more efficient use of energy and other resources. There are also many ways in which social improvements have beneficial economic repercussions.

  • We’re all in this together. In the decades since World War II, "community development" has been primarily seen as something to assist economically disadvantaged groups (in rural communities and in the inner cities). This assistance was supposed to help these groups "keep up" with the rest of an otherwise individualistic society. It was all part of a charity model that assumed, "The center is OK; we just need to tidy- up around the edges." Our society’s commitment to even this kind of community development has been, at best, uneven.
But by now two things are clear:

1) While these efforts have certainly helped to soften some of the disparity in the society, they have not succeeded in altering the underlying systemic structures that generated the stark disparities in the first place.

2) The center is not OK. The public has, understandably, lost faith in the big centralized institutions of government and business. The individualistic, consumerist society that these large institutions have supported and encouraged is no longer the gleaming goal it used to be. Indeed, more and more people are seeing it as the root of the problem and something we all need to learn how to leave behind. We now have the opportunity to focus on the needs of the whole community, opening up new possibilities and garnering a much deeper level of support for and from the whole community.

This list is not meant to be complete, but already it shows how broad the opportunities are for substantial – and beneficial – change.


Yet the promise held up by these opportunities is at least matched by the difficulty of the challenges facing communities:

  • Social Disintegration. Much of the fabric of community life is already badly worn, if not shredded. In addition to such dramatic evidence as the LA upheaval, a quieter, but equally worrisome, example is that the time most people spend either in a car by themselves or watching TV is much, much greater than the time they spend talking to a neighbor or otherwise participating in any kind of community life.

  • State and Federal Regulations. While there is much that communities can do within the framework of existing legislation, there are also many areas in which existing legislation, at best, works at cross purposes to constructive local action. For example, all the hidden subsidies for the automobile (see page 8) make it difficult for communities to develop sustainable transportation systems.

  • Globalization and Rapid Change. As the world’s economies get more closely tied together, the economic fate of many communities is controlled by distant events and distant institutions. The proposed new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) would introduce even more control at the global level. As the pace of global change keeps growing communities will find it harder to plan or engage in any kind of long-term projects.

  • Economic Restructuring and Shrinkage. Many of the opportunities listed above require investment, but there seems to be precious little "economic surplus" available these days as our economy moves painfully through a profound reorganization.

It is important to avoid overblowing the power of these difficulties, for, as many of the previous articles illustrate, there are often creative ways that local communities can deal with them. Some can even be turned into assets. For example, any community whose public life is sufficiently satisfying and engaging to out-compete TV can tap the huge resource of human time now spent in front of the tube.

Nevertheless, the process of constructive community change has never been easy, and making these changes in the 1990s promises to be as challenging as ever.


Is there anything we all can do to give communities a better chance? In the race to build a humane and sustainable society before business-as-usual drives us to collapse, is there any way we might be able to tip the scales, improve the odds, for communities?

The history of successful community development efforts provides an encouraging yes. It seems that the paradoxical key to successful decentralized action is often a broad-based infrastructure of support services that can assist and cushion each local unit, plus undertake research and other activities that no local unit could afford.

The Mondragon Cooperatives provide a wonderful example. This group of over 160 employee-owned and democratically run businesses in the Basque region of Spain has 23,000 worker-members and had over $3 billion in sales in 1991. Many people feel they are not only the world’s most successful group of cooperatives but also the most successful example of grassroots community development.

A major key to the success of these cooperatives is their group of second-level cooperatives: the bank, the research institute, the business development group, and various schools and training centers. These second- level cooperatives have enabled the primary cooperatives to survive through more than 30 years of good times and bad with fewer than 5 percent business failures and essentially no unemployment, even when the society around them had over 25 percent unemployment!

The same story is evident in the high success rate of businesses started in incubators (see page 33).

Another example of support services that have had far-reaching impacts is the US Department of Agriculture’s Extension Service. I’m not enthused about many of the policies promoted by the Extension Service, but I think we need to recognize that the combination of research and teaching at Land Grant universities and the outreach work of local Extension Agents was remarkably successful at transforming US agriculture.

These examples suggest that, if we really want the movement toward more humane and sustainable communities to succeed, one of the highest leverage actions we can take is to create what I would call "Community Transformation Services" to provide various kinds of assistance to those in local communities who are on the front lines of the community transformation process.

Fortunately, there are already many support services and support organizations that deal with one aspect or another of the community transformation process, as many of the previous articles have illustrated. Yet as far as I know, there is currently no organization or group of organizations that 1 ) have the full vision of community transformation and 2) are providing support services to communities to help them implement that vision.

Such an organization or group of organizations could fulfill many roles, such as:

  • Integrated Referral and Resource Clearinghouse. At the present time there is no single place a community can go to find assistance and information on economic and environmental and social development.

  • Whole-systems Training. Many of the best opportunities today make use of synergies between economic, environmental, and social issues. Local leaders will be able to tap these more effectively if they are not always having to reinvent the process. Good training programs could quickly bring them up to speed.

  • "Tool" Creation. Those who are pursuing a whole-systems approach to community transformation are likely to find that currently available books, videos and other such "tools" aren’t enough. They will need an organization that can respond to their specific needs by creating appropriately customized materials.

  • Communications and Networking Support. A lot of useful learning will be taking place in communities all over the world. With the right kind of communication system between communities, this learning can spread rapidly, easing and accelerating the process.

  • Clearinghouse for Legislation. While the main focus of activity needs to be at the local level, there will be various state and federal legislative obstacles to be removed and opportunities to be seized. At the least, there needs to be a clearinghouse that can be an interface between communities and the various specific lobbying organizations that focus on particular topics.

  • Community Transformation Extension. There may well be a role for various consultants who would be the equivalent of community transformation extension agents. An appropriate service organization could help to train, coordinate, and perhaps even certify these consultants.


Let’s take a moment to step back and look at the big picture:

  • The root material cause for much of the environmental damage going on around the world is wasteful over-consumption in the industrialized world, of which the US is a prime example. This over- consumption occurs in, and is often structured into, our communities. We won’t be able to build a sustainable future until we transform the way we live in our communities.

  • Much of the root psychological cause for our over-consumption comes out of personal insecurities and ignorance of alternatives, both of which are encouraged by our present individualistic, competitive, and alienating society. We won’t be able to deal with these psychological issues without simultaneously transforming the character of our community life.

  • The highest-leverage way to encourage the community transformation process is to develop appropriate support services.

But if community transformation and the support services for it are such a great idea, why aren’t we, as a society, already doing it? In part, of course, some of us are already doing it, but not nearly enough. In part we aren’t doing it because people have only recently come to the broad whole-system understanding on which this argument rests. Yet perhaps most of all, we aren’t doing it because it is a form of "investment for the common good" and our society has difficulty even recognizing, much less supporting, the common good. In very practical terms, we aren’t doing it because we have not yet figured out how to adequately fund it.

There is, however, considerable hope that the community transformation process can get past this all- too-familiar roadblock. As the San Jose story points out, hidden in most communities today is an enormous economic resource of current wasteful spending practices – on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars for the US as a whole, as the hidden costs of driving illustrate (see page 8).

To the extent that the community transformation process can tap that resource, by improving community efficiency, and then use some of the resultant savings to fund further community transformation efforts, community transformation should be able to become a self-financing process. I like to think of such a self- financing community transformation process as a beneficial "social bacteria" that can live off the waste in the current system. The support services could be financed on this same basis.

But it takes time for savings to accumulate, and it takes investment to get the savings started. While some of this investment can be obtained through conventional sources, including electric utilities (see page 50), a crucial part of the process will need startup support from foundations and individuals, like you and me. The support services, especially, need far-sighted funders who understand the high leverage these can have in accelerating the community transformation process.


Here at Context Institute we believe strongly in the value of the community transformation process and have been doing all we can to promote it, including:

  • covering many topics of importance to community transformation through IN CONTEXT
  • continuing to research sustainable community developments around the world

  • working with organizations like the American Institute of Architects and the YMCA to move them more broadly into the community transformation process

  • working with the Global Action Plan organization to develop the Household EcoTeam Program, a six month program (now active in the US, Canada, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden) to help groups of households move toward environmental balance – and build community in the process

  • working with the Swedish Institute for Social Inventions and Rocky Mountain Institute’s Economic Renewal Program to start development of a Guide to Resources for Community Transformation

  • starting work on a Sustainability Audit as a self- assessment tool for communities, especially geared to help identify opportunities to move in a more sustainable direction – and save money in the process.

It is our intention to keep doing what we can to act as a catalyst for the community transformation movement within our limits of time, human energy, and funds.


There are many ways for you to participate in this process as well:

  • Get involved with your community. This is the heart of the whole process and the area that needs the most involvement. Start a study circle, go for a walk, join an EcoTeam, …

  • Provide products or services that help the process. Whether through a business or as part of a nonprofit* organization, whether locally or on a broader scale, orient your work or your volunteer efforts to community transformation.

  • Support organizations that are working for community transformation. Even though most such organizations have a more specialized focus than we described here, community transformation needs all the help it can get. Help them to expand their vision, and give them the support to do so.

Over the next few decades, the transformation of industrial society into a humane and sustainable culture is a very real possibility, but we won’t get there unless we give it our best effort now.

Join us in making it real.

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