What is Community?

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A few years ago, my Canadian relatives gave me a poster on ‘How to build community’, which has been placed on my vision board at home.

It is always a source of inspiration and I always think the community-building aspect is a fundamental part of how a Transition town works and what energy descent will mean in practice. What is community? Well, we could talk about online communities, which are part of the mix, but largely a reflection of the multi-tasking, time-poor, physically disconnected age we live in. We could define community by asking how we can build it. Read on . . .

How to build Community:

  1. Turn off your television.
  2. Leave your house.
  3. Know your neighbors.
  4. Look up when you are walking.
  5. Greet people.
  6. Sit on your stoop.
  7. Plant flowers.
  8. Use your library.
  9. Play together.
  10. Buy from local merchants.
  11. Share what you have.
  12. Help a lost dog.
  13. Take children to the park.
  14. Garden together.
  15. Support neighborhood schools.
  16. Fix it even if you didn’t break it.
  17. Have pot lucks.
  18. Honor elders.
  19. Pick up litter.
  20. Read stories aloud.
  21. Dance in the street.
  22. Talk to the mail carrier.
  23. Listen to the birds.
  24. Put up a swing.
  25. Help carry something heavy.
  26. Barter for your goods.
  27. Start a tradition.
  28. Ask a question.
  29. Hire young people for odd jobs.
  30. Organize a block party.
  31. Bake extra and share.
  32. Ask for help when you need it.,
  33. Open your shades.
  34. Sing together.
  35. Share your skills.
  36. Take back the night.
  37. Turn up the music.
  38. Turn down the music.
  39. Listen before you react to anger.
  40. Mediate a conflict.
  41. Seek to understand.
  42. Learn from new and uncomfortable angles.
  43. Know that no one is silent though many are not heard – work to change this.

For me, the most important point here was ‘Learn from new and uncomfortable angles’. This is because energy descent is unprecedented and even those highly-educated and professional amongst us will need to do this. My experience in a Transition initiative showed me that sometimes individuals with significant academic qualifications were often quite inflexible in doing things differently. I remember conversations along the lines of ‘well, all this transition stuff is no different from sustainable development’. The idea of doing anything from a new or uncomfortable angle would be unacceptable. The thought of being a energy descent  ‘beginner’ would not be entertained.

Being out of your comfort zone is often where we are with all of this. It is enriching and humbling at the same time as being educating.

A transition town/village is probably the best response we have right now to energy descent. The people involved in a transition town are a community in their own right, and a microcosm of the wider community. Looking at the list above, it seems to me that most points are experiences for those actively involved in a transition group. Working together is the essence of it really. Whenever anyone used to ask me ‘what is this transition town thing all about?’ I would always blurt out something about peak oil and climate change, and get some fairly blank looks. Once I started mentioning the word ‘community’, people’s reactions were much more upbeat. They got it.

As I’m reading Richard Heinberg’s Peak Everything at the moment, community is one of the aspects that gets a mention as something we should be growing and developing in the future. Whilst we may be peaking in oil, gas and coal production, as well as other essentials (water, soil), it is suggested that we are nowhere near a full potentail in terms of community.

Living in a village (which is taking its first tentative steps towards transition), I find that many of these community-building steps are already happening. After being a local for the past five years, it is very natural to greet people in the street, even ones I don’t know. Saying ‘Good Morning’ to a random person in the street will mostly get a smile and a positive response. The few people it is tricky with are those who don’t look up when you pass them, even if there is no-one else around. My theory is that these people are ones who don’t live locally and aren’t use to greeting strangers when they are out. I always think it’s a shame: the chance to connect with someone wasted.

Something as simple as ‘look up when you walk’ sounds obvious, but seems to be a quality that is increasingly missing through mobile phones, ipods, and just an embarassment over having to acknowledge/speak to someone whilst you are moving from A to B. Saying ‘hello’ to someone who isn’t looking up when they are walking is a barrier, but one that can be overcome. I know people who will say it anyway, often taking the other person by surprise. We could call this ‘guerrilla greetings’ and I would wholeheartedly recommend them. Until there is a point of people being able to communicate with each other in their locality, any discussion of community seems quite abstract. Looking up is also a good community-builder as it enables you to be aware of both the place you are in and the here and now.

So simple, but so elusive.

The ‘How to Build Community’ list is always a source of inspiration, and a manifesto for living. I was going to add ‘in an post-oil future’ at the end of the previous sentence but it’s now that this stuff is important. It’s always easy to stick up a poster and think how nice it would be if . . .  but doing most of these things isn’t difficult. I mean I’m not sure about dancing in the streets, but everything else sounds great: the community I want to live in. These are the things that makes life worth living. Being a strong community is a clear advantage to all who live there, particularly in uncertain times.

Loss and Gain

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When you’re a member of a transition initiative, it’s very easy to lose sight of what is important in amongst all the organising of things.

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It made me think that we all need to constantly remember the reasons we became interested and involved in the beginning. It also sometimes means questioning how doing what we’re doing makes us feel. If it makes us feel good, alive, excited, then that is a reason for carrying on. If on the other hand, it makes us feel overwhelmed, negative, jaded, then that should be enough to stop doing it.

Recently, I’ve spoken to several people who have felt that they have become mired in detail and managing, losing some/all of the vitality they felt when they first started. This is a pity, but only a decision that can be made by those individuals. What are the options if you find yourself in a negative spiral? Remove yourself from the situation, change the situation, or accept the situation. That is all (thanks Eckhart Tolle!)

Working towards energy descent is very challenging. It demands much and is unprecedented. There is also a tedency to feel we need to use today in order to create a better future. Well, that might be one way to think about it. What is just as important though, is what you do today. Transition implies a gradual change or shift; it is about a journey rather than a destination. Always thinking of the destination is overwhelming, and might mean you miss the journey itself.

Feeling that ‘if we don’t do it, no-one else will’ is also something I’ve heard recently. Transition Towns are often caught up in this thinking: too few people trying to do too many things. This often then becomes the main reason for taking on too much, or feeling anxious that the whole organisation is going to fall apart if you stop doing this or that. Well, there are times when you need to just say ‘no’. Not all grand schemes happen, and recognising when it’s time to let go of something that isn’t working is not just important, it’s often a way to regain your focus and feel happy again. Anything really important won’t fall apart and anything that goes is not important. This is personal resilience.

I feel like I’ve had to learn most of this the hard way, and have gained much in the process.