Think local not global, small not big

August 30, 2002

Communities such as Brithdir Mawr in Wales teach us that sustainability begins at home, says Larch Juckes Maxey.

The very notion of a world summit of experts and leaders to "sort out" sustainable development is in many ways self-defeating. It is a top-down, hierarchical approach at odds with the principles of participation and equity that underpin sustainability. Yet somehow, within this whole process, there must be space for real changes that address the environmental crisis and the needs of people in all parts of the world. One of the strongest messages of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was that these are inseparable.

The top-down, export-led approach to eradicating poverty that is favoured by George Bush, Tony Blair and many "southern" heads of state has already proven unsustainable. As research and experience consistently show, attempting to compete in the global economy pushes more people off the land into slums, benefiting agribusiness and wealthy consumers in the short term, but leaving resource bases depleted before long. In the ten years since Rio, globalisation has exacerbated global poverty, widening the gap between rich and poor and leaving growing ecological destruction in its wake.

Instead of an export-led search for miracles, we should support sustainable livelihoods in sustainable communities. After all, these sustainable communities are nothing new. Humans have lived in them for 2 million years, and sustainable communities continue to provide the way of life for one-third of the world's people who derive their livelihoods directly from free access to land, water and forests. Poverty stems from a lack of power, not a lack of money, knowledge or skills. Our first priority should be to protect access to land, water and forests for those living or seeking to live in sustainable communities.

It is easy to argue that Africans should have access to affordable housing, safe drinking water and electricity powered by renewable energy. However, sustainable communities in Britain, such as Brithdir Mawr in Pembrokeshire, have been engaged in precisely these struggles with obstruction rather than assistance from local and national government. Nestled in the Preseli mountains, Brithdir Mawr is home to almost 20 people who have secured their own spring water supply, produce their own renewable energy and their own organic food and provide most of their livelihoods through local work such as basket weaving and wood-turning from wood coppiced on site. Like many sustainable communities in the UK, however, the future of Brithdir Mawr is still hampered by outdated and unresponsive planning regulations that fail to fully understand what sustainability means.

To be sustainable, communities need to be able to grow and shrink according to their circumstances. They need to be able to house members, particularly their offspring, through sustainable, low-impact housing, yet most communities are currently unable to do this. My research found this was particularly the case at Holtsfield, a thriving chalet community on the edge of Gower, near Swansea.

Having successfully fought their landlord's attempts to evict them since 1995, the community is now struggling to provide accommodation and livelihoods for its offspring due to planning and economic obstacles. Yet Holstfield illustrates the value of diversity within sustainable communities as it is composed of more than 60 people from a range of backgrounds and aged from in utero to 80. Although threatened by wider social, cultural and economic forces, this diversity makes Holtsfield one of the most balanced British sustainable communities I have seen.

From low-cost housing co-ops and self-built eco-villages to more traditional villages and co-housing initiatives, sustainable communities are already taking root throughout Britain in urban and rural areas. Lessons from these communities should be used to change how we approach development and decision-making. Wind farms, for example, can be large-scale, imposed on a community by government and profit hungry corporations, or they can be small-scale, initiated and owned by the community themselves, as is common in Scandinavia. On the one hand, a top-down approach undermines a sustainable technology. On the other, truly sustainable approaches enhance sustainable livelihoods within sustainable communities.

Sustainable communities embrace US secretary of state Colin Powell's suggestion that sustainable development should begin at home. Sustainable communities are already pioneering sustainable technologies and providing examples of sustainable best practice. Furthermore, such communities provide tangible ways we can each be part of the shift towards sustainable development as we look around and acknowledge our own communities and seek to make them more sustainable.

Through working with others, we in the academic community can each begin to acknowledge that sustainable development means shifting towards resource-light models of affluence. This may involve replacing escalating material consumption with greater richness of inter-personal relationships. Sustainable development, however, means what local people in local communities want it to mean, so the choice is neither mine nor yours, but ours.

Larch Juckes Maxey teaches sustainability at the University of Wales, Swansea, where he has recently completed a PhD in sustainable communities.

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