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#731 - A Vision Statement -- Final Part, 15-Aug-2001

Can people agree what a sustainable and desirable U.S. might be
like? (See REHN #727, #728, #729, #730, http://iee.umces.edu/ESDA/,
and www.futuresearch.net.)

Here is part 5 (the final part) of a draft vision statement
issued by a group that has tentatively named itself ESDA
(Envisioning a Sustainable and Desirable America). The ESDA
group says, "We hope you can take the time to read our vision,
and offer us your comments. Would you like to live in this
world? Are there elements of our vision with which you disagree?
Are important pieces missing? Please send your feedback to
farley@cbl.umces.edu," the E-mail address of Josh Farley at
University of Maryland.

The draft vision statement is organized into five parts:
Worldviews, Built Capital, Natural Capital, Human Capital and
Social Capital. In our last installment, we began publishing the
"Social Capital" section, which continues here:

Thus, for our vision of local production for local markets to
work, social capital must be strong. As discussed in the section
on built capital, the very physical structure of communities
will work to create that social capital. Abundant community
spaces, parks, and recreation areas will stimulate social
interaction, build friendships, and generate a sense of
responsibility towards neighbors and community. With single
occupancy vehicles almost gone and people living in smaller
communities, just getting from place to place will bring us in
close contact with our neighbors. In America 2001, public
transportation is primarily found only in large cities, and
fellow passengers are strangers, not neighbors. Under these
circumstances, public transportation does little to build social
capital, but this will not be the case in 2100.

America in 2100 will maintain the ethnic and cultural diversity
that currently enriches our nation. Some neighborhoods will
coalesce around different ethnicities and cultures, and these
too will serve as sources of social capital. However, America
will have rid itself of the racism, sexism, regionalism and
other prejudices that are all too prevalent today.

Americans will have more time for family, and family life will
be characterized by more balanced gender roles.

The process of government will itself create social capital.
America in 2100 will no longer be a weak representative
democracy, but a strong, participatory one. In a participatory
democracy, the people must discuss at length the issues that
affect them to decide together how they should be resolved. In
today's world of high-pressure jobs, little free time, and large
communities of anonymous strangers this approach to government
seems impractical, unwieldy and too demanding. In our vision of
the future, with smaller communities of neighbors, a far shorter
work week, and engaged, active citizens, participatory democracy
will be perceived as a privilege of citizenship and not an
onerous chore. Of course, for this to work presupposes that
civic education forms an essential part of development of human
capital from childhood on. This approach to government will be
particularly effective at the local level. As citizens come
together in regular meetings to discuss the issues and work
together to resolve them (even when substantial conflict
exists), it will create strong bonds of social capital, and will
play an essential role in forging a sense of community.
Government of course implies action, and action implies purpose.
Purpose must be defined by the people, who in these civic
meetings will also forge a shared vision of the future to guide
their actions. This vision cannot be static, but must adapt to
new information and new conditions as they emerge.

Of course, not all issues can be decided on the local level.
Institutions are required at the scale of the problems they
address. It is at the local level where people will feel the
consequences of ecosystem change, for example, but causes may be
distant, perhaps in other countries. On the national level it is
not feasible to bring together millions of people to discuss the
issues and decide on actions, so some form of representation
will be required. But if representatives are chosen through
direct participation by people to whom they have strong social
ties and obligations, these representatives are far more likely
to truly represent their communities and not some large
corporation that funds their rise to power.

Conclusion

We hope you share our vision for a sustainable and desirable
America. Our goal is to create a shared vision, and if you do
not believe this future America would be a desirable place to
live, we need your feedback. We would also appreciate your
positive feedback. The envisioning process is dynamic, and we
have only just begun. [End of draft vision statement.]

RACHEL'S Editor's Comments

So there you have it, a vision statement of what the U.S. might
be like 100 years from now. (See also REHN #727, #728, #729 and
#730.) It is only a first draft. Please pull together your
thoughtful comments on this vision and E-mail them to
farley@cbl.umces.edu, which is the address of Josh Farley at
University of Maryland. They will be posted on the web at http://-
iee.umces.edu/ESDA/ for others to consider. A vision statement
must evolve as time passes, adapting to new circumstances, new
perceptions, new possibilities.

Several people have sent us comments already, and the comment I
want to address here is this: How can we get there? What could
we be doing to promote a U.S. that works for us and our
descendents ecologically, economically, morally, culturally, and
politically?

Naturally, there are many things that we can each be doing to
bring about a different world. But I believe one key idea
underpins them all, and has been badly neglected: locally-based
democratic decision-making, as discussed briefly in this week's
installment of the vision statement.

I believe real democracy is the thing we need the most, and the
thing we study and work on the least. Perhaps we work on
"democracy" so little because we already live in a democracy. We
think of the U.S. as a "democratic" country, but what does
democratic participation in the U.S. really mean? It means
paying your taxes, occasionally voting for one candidate or
another, and the rest of the time minding your own business.
This is what Benjamin Barber[1] calls our "thin democracy" --it was
designed by the Founding Fathers to pretty much exclude
most people.

But times have changed. We no longer live on a planet that seems
infinitely large and mostly uninhabited. Now we are faced with
adjusting our lives to new realities -- a planet that is filling
up with people, a planet of finite size with finite resources
(some renewable and some not), with a finite capacity to absorb
wastes. Now the main task we all face is how to arrange our
lives so that our communities (and nations) can become
sustainable, meaning they can sustain their members into the
foreseeable future. (If you don't think the question of finite
resources is important, ask yourself if the recent atrocities in
New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania would have been as likely
to occur if the industrialized nations weren't deriving 54% of
their energy from the Middle East.)

Because we do not know the limits of ecosystems, we can never
define precisely what "sustainable" means. We have to discover
-- and invent -- its meaning as time passes. One book seems
especially relevant here: THE LOCAL POLITICS OF GLOBAL
SUSTAINABILITY by Thomas Prugh, Robert Costanza and Herman Daly
(Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000; ISBN 1-55963-744-7). I'm
going to call this book PCD, shorthand for the names of its
authors. Everyone who cares about sustainability would benefit
by reading this short, meaty book.

PCD points out that the problems we face -- such as
overconsumption, overpopulation, fossil fuel use, and
destruction of species -- are not mainly technical problems. If
they were, we'd be able to solve them within a few years. The
systems involved are complex and interconnected in ways that
make their behavior inherently unpredictable.

"As a result," says PCD, "the politics of communities' and
nations' efforts to address their sustainability problems is
much more important than any technical expertise they can
muster. There are experts aplenty, but we cannot simply consult
them for the 'best' solutions, because nobody can know what
those solutions are in any complete or final sense. The
solutions must be explored and tested through a process of
continuous adaptive learning. Deciding which options to try
means making political choices that affect everyone and require
wide support and engagement. A generation after its coinage, the
slogan Power to the People takes on a new meaning," says PCD
(pg. xiv).

PCD goes on: "Because there can be no permanent solutions in a
world that is ecologically and culturally dynamic, these choices
will have to be made again and again as circumstances evolve.
Therefore, moving toward sustainability will require a radically
broadened base of participants and a political process that
continuously keeps them engaged. The process must encourage the
perpetual hearing, testing, working through, and modification of
competing visions AT THE COMMUNITY LEVEL.... The key seems to be
structuring political systems so that people's decisions
matter.... We believe communities are the primary locus of
responsibility for creating a sustainable world. The admonition
to Think Globally, Act Locally retains its wisdom despite years
of bumper-sticker overexposure. Directed sustainability[2] will
come about in neighborhoods or not at all" (pg. xv).

What does all this mean? It means the most important issue we
all face is democratic control of our lives. In a very real
sense, all the issues of poverty, environment, justice and
community boil down to failures of democratic participation.
When we complain about corporate power and the destructive
effects of "globalization" we are complaining about the absence
of democratic decision-making (decision-making by those who are
affected by the decisions).

We all want democracy. But how much time do we devote to
studying how to make democracy really work? How much effort do
we spend trying to re-arrange our local communities so that we
make decisions by talking together? These are good questions.

In sum, how can we turn our vision of a sustainable and
desirable world into reality? We can start by learning how to
make democracy work -- really work -- in local communities. How
can that begin to happen? How can we shift our society from
"thin democracy" to "strong democracy"?[1] This is the key
question we can all be starting to answer in our own way. Please
give us your thoughts, including examples that you know are
already working. We'll tell others what's working now.[3]

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Benjamin R. Barber, STRONG DEMOCRACY: PARTICIPATORY POLITICS
FOR A NEW AGE (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press,
1984; paperback edition 1985). ISBN 0520056167. And be sure to
see Benjamin R. Barber A PLACE FOR US; HOW TO MAKE SOCIETY CIVIL
AND DEMOCRACY STRONG (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998). ISBN
0809076578.

[2] "Directed sustainability" means sustainability that humans
choose. As PCD points out, "If we fail to achieve
sustainability, nature will impose it; but we would probably
prefer the version we choose."

[3] We have a new section on the Rachel web site called "What's
Working Now" a catalog of good ideas that are actually working
somewhere in the real world. Check it out at
http://www.rachel.org.