The Role of Green Groups in a Shrinking State


Image credit: Bill Slawski, used under Creative Commons license.

Whether we are talking about the proper role of Government in incentivizing sidewalks, or the sterling work of the Apollo Alliance, accusations that we TreeHuggers are nothing but a bunch of lefty, elitist marxists (and/or Nazis) are none too rare. And there is no doubt that many of us favor strong government action to wean us off fossil fuels, cut pollution and encourage cleaner, more sustainable, and fairer paths for our collective future. But Greens—as many of our opinionated, intelligent commenters show—can be conservative, libertarian, or anarchist too. In fact, many green groups are actively involved in activities that either replace or supplement state services with direct community action. Given the cuts to Government spending that are kicking in everywhere, is it time to ask what role green groups should play in a shrinking state?Transition Movement Gets Political
I started pondering this question having read a heart-felt and passionate account by Sarah Nicholl and Marietta Birkholtz over at Transition Culture of how climate change and peak oil activists are fighting swinging cuts to schools, libraries and other essential public services. While the Transition Movement has, so far, been careful to avoid party politics, it seems obvious that as a community-lead response to coming challenges, it has little choice but to engage in political debate as its influence grows.

Community Action Replacing Government Responsibility?
The interesting dilemma faced by such activists is that, in many ways, activities like community nut tree plantings, community gardens, peer-to-peer energy audits and certainly local currencies are a direct attempt to put decision-making powers and resources that might have previously been associated with governments in the hands of local communities.

Is the Big Society a Big Excuse?
It's this type of devolved decision making that made the Transition movement such an attractive topic for advocates of the Big Society debate currently going on in the UK. And many activists were, at least in the early stages, delighted to find a receptive voice in Government. As, however, the extent of Government cuts becomes apparent, the same activists are worried that their involvement is being used as a fig leaf for gutting essential services. This from Nicholl and Birkholtz's account of debates in their own community of Camden in London:

But still they will try to use us as a cover. A low point of our evening came when the leader of Camden Council's Tory group said: "We over here will not argue that there should not be public services, but we may argue that there should be alternative providers of services like private companies or maybe Transition Belsize who were part of the first deputation we heard tonight."

Ow! We briefly considered taking over Belsize Library and turning it into a better community asset. But there are only so many hours in the day. We simply don't have the capacity to pick up the slack that's being created.


Government and Communities as Partners
This, I suspect, gets to the heart of the matter. It is not a debate of whether action should be taken by Government, or by communities, or by individuals—but rather what action is appropriate at which level. While green groups may indeed be ready and willing to step in and build local capacity and resilience, this will lead to nothing if the basic community and social infrastructure that Government maintains is allowed to crumble.

At best such an approach will lead to pockets of resilience among mostly wealthy, connected and resource-rich communities while the have nots are left to fend for themselves. At worst, it'll just be chaos. Neither sounds too appealing to me. By all means let's let communities determine their own destinies. But I suspect that most will want Government to come along as a partner, not an adversary.

More on the Transition Movement
Can Big Society Save the Planet?
The Dark Side of Transition Towns: Worldchanging Slams Transition Movement
The Massive Impact of Just One Community Transition Group

Tags: Activism | Economics | Peak Oil | United Kingdom

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