The term “community” represents a group of people rooted in a sense of place through which they are in a reciprocal and trusting relationship with one another and their landscape. As such, a community is not simply a static place within a static landscape, but rather a lively, self-reinforcing resonance of ever-changing, interactive, interdependent systems of relationships. Because a community is a self-organizing system within a larger environmental system, it does not simply incorporate information, but changes its environment as well. Thus, as the community in its living alters the landscape, so the landscape in reaction alters the community.
A community also maintains a shared identity grounded in its history, which must be passed from one generation to the next if the community is to know itself throughout the passage of time. History, in turn, is a reflection of how we see ourselves and thus goes to the very root by which we give value to things. Our vision of the past is shaped by and in turn shapes our understanding of the present – those complex and comprehensive, mental images by which we decide what is true or false about us.
When the continuity of a community’s relationship to the landscape is disrupted, a trust is violated in some way, the community suffers partial extinction of identity, and may begin to view its landscape as a separate commodity to be exploited for immediate financial gain. When this happens, community is destroyed from within because interpersonal trust is withdrawn in deference to growing economic competition. It seems clear, therefore, that true community may be overly vulnerable to disruption and literally cannot extend itself beyond its local place and history, which the measure of our expanding “ecological footprint” suggests has happened in recent generations.
Our task, therefore, is to ask ourselves when enough is enough and thus shape a sustainable future by using resources less intensively, where “resources” include every component of nature’s life-support system. It is also important to acknowledge that although nature produces no waste, our economic productivity creates substances that are deemed “waste” because they have no economic value within the current temporal frame and thus are simply discarded. Therefore, a critical part of community sustainability is producing as little “waste” as possible, while absorbing and recycling that which is created.
The bottom line is that communities themselves are responsible for choosing what is important to protect and maintain, usually with the help of a framework, within their own time scales, not inhibited by a definition of sustainability established elsewhere. Living sustainably is maintaining the important mix of options and opportunities without creating unnecessary limitations. Bob Gibson states that such conscious living guarantees, as much as humanly possible, that our decisions and actions will prevent a resource from falling below the threshold required, perpetuating it through time and thus not compromising the quality of life for future generations of the community.
The use of a framework encourages the building of capacity by the community for the understanding and awareness needed to seek improved well-being in a community-wide way, not simply as individuals. And the critical mass of participation by many community members employing a universal framework that focuses the group and adds capacity to their human resource value has proven to lead to change in communities.
Of the several facets reflected in the term “development,” people in United States have chosen to focus on a very narrow one: development as material growth through centralized industrialization and distributed communication, which we equate with social “progress” and “economic health.” The narrowness of this view is behind the geopolitical notion of “developed” versus “developing” nations.
But if community unity is not an important facet of development, what is? However, it depends on how one defines development. If development is defined as only a certain material standard of living based on the economic consumerism of centralized industrialization, Belize for example is indeed behind the United States. But, if development also includes social civility and tolerance, the United States can be thought of as a developing country wherein access to social justice is anything but equal. And what about aboriginal peoples who not only had civility but also had long-term, sustainable relationships with their environment. Were they not developed?
It is ironic that the very people who consider themselves to be developed and therefore “civilized” are the ones who have, throughout history, so ruthlessly destroyed the cultures of those they unilaterally brand as “undeveloped” and therefore necessarily “uncivilized.” Fortunately, despite the continuing onslaught of “civilized” peoples in such places as the Belizean jungles and Amazon rainforest (Amazonia), there are a few remaining aboriginal communities, some of whom are found in the deserts of Australia and the jungles of South America, as well as other parts of the world, including the Belize Maya.
I say fortunately, albeit they are severely endangered, because there is much about development and sustainability that we in the industrialized world can relearn from them. After all, our ancestors were also indigenous, tribal people at one time. Our problem of late is that we have ignored most, if not all, of the wisdom they once knew. And it is precisely this ignoring of ancient wisdom that is forcing us to focus on a contemporary question: How should we view development if the concept is to be equitable and sustainable?
If a lifestyle promotes sustainability through conscious choice, conscious simplicity, self-provisioning, and recognizes the relationships between a person’s own sustenance and the livelihood of their immediate surroundings (their fidelity to their sense of place) in relationship to the larger world, that life is not necessarily perceived as one of poverty. This leaves the way open to change the indicators of development.
Development must be flexible and open to community definition because the values promoted must always provide for various necessities and not contingencies as they arise. The process of valuation embodied in community development must address social-environmental justice in recognizing the necessity of non-discriminatory access to resources, including fair distribution of goods and services, while simultaneously protecting the long-term, biophysical infrastructure of the system that produces them for all generations. But when development is coupled with economic growth (as in “we must grow the economy” or “the economy isn’t growing fast enough”), the political specter of special interests arises in the form of those who choose to equate development with growth, thereby persuading society of the continual need for more consumerism in order to achieve prosperous lifestyles.
While quantity, which equates to growth, always squanders resources, good quality, which is the purpose of conscious development, always conserves resources. Sound development can be represented as a mode of improvement that protects the biophysical sources of natural capital from economic abuse. Put differently, development that is sustainable remains within the long-term, biophysical carrying capacity of the systems that support it by recognizing the limits of growth and looking for alternative means of community improvement. In this way communities can concentrate on developing their full potential as conscious beings, by being more not needing to have more.
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