Rebuilding Communities

Stopping crime at its roots

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Justice (IC#38)
Originally published in Spring 1994 on page 59
Copyright (c)1994, 1997 by Context Institute

A good whole-system solution contributes to solving more than one problem; its "side-effects" are beneficial rather than detrimental. Over the years we’ve suggested many changes that we felt could move our society in a more humane and sustainable direction, yet few of these changes have been motivated specifically by the goal of reducing crime. How well do these recommendations fare when measured against this goal? Let’s look at some of the key recommendations from recent back issues.

INTERCONNECTEDNESS

Crime is essentially a violation of the golden rule; a denial of the multifaceted interconnectedness we explored in IC #34. This breakdown of the sense of interconnectedness is certainly true for perpetrators, and it is all too often reflected in the social, emotional, and economic conditions out of which crime grows.

This is particularly true for modern industrial society with its underlying philosophy of individualism and success through win-lose competition. Having created a society based on such an anti-golden-rule philosophy, we must constantly try to overcome the abuses to which such a philosophy naturally leads. We attempt to do this with millions of laws and regulations that keep trying to draw a line between those situations in which it is OK to violate the golden rule and those where it is not.

Not surprisingly, since it is the powerful special interests that are most influential in the legislative process, the line gets drawn in ways that make it OK for those special interests to steal from nature, future generations, and much of our fellow humankind through "acceptable" violations of the golden rule such as externalizing costs or benefiting from all kinds of subsidies. Such theft is many times costlier that street crime, and in the long run more socially damaging, yet our flawed philosophical foundations prevent us from confronting it directly.

A sustainable society, on the other hand, would be solidly based on an understanding and appreciation of our interconnectedness. Its economic, legal, and social institutions would reflect and support this understanding. Many of the underlying problems that now lead to crime would be addressed at their roots.

SUSTAINABLE ECONOMICS

Let’s look at this in terms of economics. In issue IC #32 (page 52), I described an approach to sustainable economics that includes a societal "balance sheet." The major categories on this balance sheet are five "reservoirs of wealth": environmental, human, social and organizational, manufactured, and credit. Economic success in this approach is measured by the ability of these reservoirs of wealth to support a good quality of life throughout the society at a sustainable social and environmental cost.

A sustainable society would pay close attention to this balance sheet, assuring that each reservoir was at an adequate level for the society as a whole and for each socio-economic subgroup. Of particular importance in relationship to crime are the categories of human capital, which tracks the levels of education, health, and motivation within a society, and social & organizational capital, which tracks, among other things, the levels of community vitality. If these levels began to decline, a golden-rule society would know that it was in everyone’s interest to make the necessary investments to build back to an adequate level. In this way, such a society would address and resolve significant human issues long before they festered to the point of prompting criminal behavior.

Another important issue for sustainable economics is the mobility of capital (see IC #36). With hundreds of billions of dollars sloshing around the globe every day through electronic trading, capital moves much faster than communities can adjust. The result is a tremendous amount of dislocation and waste.

Sustainable economics recognizes that capital must move, but it would bring the pace of that movement into line with the pace at which employees and communities could adjust. This could be done by ensuring that the decision-making power associated with capital is rooted in communities through community-based banking and employee ownership.

The result would be more stable and predictable local economies that would support strong communities. As the articles in this issue make clear, strong communities are the best antidote to crime.

SUSTAINABLE ARCHITECTURE

As we explored in IC #35, if we are to have any hope of achieving a sustainable society, we need to make major changes in the built environment (buildings and their arrangement on the land). These changes involve retrofitting and reconfiguring our existing buildings and communities to improve energy and resource efficiency, to eliminate toxic building materials, and to create more pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods.

This retrofitting and reconfiguring, while not developed for this purpose, would make a powerful contribution to crime prevention:

  • The work itself requires extensive blue-collar labor, thus opening employment opportunities for those, including the young, who today are least able to find good jobs with good pay.
  • By reducing energy consumption and reducing the need for transportation, it would lower basic living costs thus further reducing the economic stress that fosters crime.
  • The removal of toxics would reduce health problems that are now often a cause of emotional and economic stress for individuals and a burden on communities.
  • Pedestrian-oriented communities strengthen the fabric of neighborliness with all the positive effects that has for crime prevention.
  • These communities are also kid-friendly, beckoning children out into real life and away from the mean world of television. (We find this very clearly in the cohousing community where Sarah, Diane, and I live.)

TIME FOR LIFE

In IC #37, we recommended that the best approach to sustainable employment was one in which those who are presently employed worked less so that a shrinking workload could be spread among more people. This approach makes a number of positive contributions to crime prevention. The most obvious is that it would reduce unemployment. Perhaps equally important, it would enable those who are currently overemployed to spend more time with their families and in their communities. The presence of these able adults would have a major positive impact on youth.

MAKING IT REAL

As this sampling from recent issues of IN CONTEXT makes clear, the basic steps needed for building a sustainable society lead to crime prevention as a natural consequence. Coupled with the approaches described in this issue for dealing with offenders, victims, and communities after a crime has occurred, they lead to a meaningful agenda for greatly improving both safety and justice, at least in the US:

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