Can Big Society Save the Planet, and Squash Big Government Too?

Image credit: Conservative Home

I've always found the assertion that all environmentalists are socialist a little hard to swallow. I know plenty of conservatives who love the natural world and abhor waste. And I know plenty of radical greens whose anti-authoritarian, DIY streak puts them in direct conflict with any "big government" solutions from the traditional left. This very debate is flourishing right now over in the UK, with the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition Government backing a campaign called Big Society. It's a campaign that clearly hopes to engage the Transition movement and other grassroots citizen efforts—and it's got many people talking about what the real role of government should be.
Over at Transition Culture, Jules Peck (a former adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron) has an interesting set of reflections on the Big Society agenda. On the one hand, he sees this as a perfect opportunity for those involved in grassroots environmental change to find a partner in government:

"...the Big Society programme includes things like; reforming planning to give neighbourhoods more ability to determine the shape of their communities, powers to help communities save local facilities and services, training a new generation of community organisers and supporting the creation of neighbourhood groups, supporting the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and using funds from dormant bank accounts to establish a Big Society Bank, which will provide new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other nongovernmental bodies. This all sounds positive and maps well against many of the things Transition and other citizen and community groups are doing around the country already."

Nevertheless, government money often comes with government strings attached. To truly pursue the full potential of the Big Society approach, he argues, the government needs to be true to its word and let citizens movements take the lead, with government support.

He also cautions, however, that conservatives shouldn't let their anti-state tendencies undermine these efforts. For Big Society to function, government will have to do much more than just step aside and see what happens when the people take control. Similarly, given that the UK is facing much the same economic crisis as everywhere else, the current administration will have to be careful not to let spending cuts to the basic welfare safety net undermine these efforts at community building.

This last point is particularly important when it comes to creating environmental and social change in poorer communities. As was hinted at by one commenter in my post on the Brixton Pound, transition initiatives may be an incredible uprising in community spirit but they are also, for the time being, not as economically, ethnically or culturally diverse as they could be. The danger with scaling back government is that those who have, and can, will thrive, while those who have not will fall between the cracks. And when too many people fall between the cracks, the cracks tend to widen. (Maybe I am a socialist after all!)

I'm not knocking the idea of Big Society outright. I think community empowerment is a crucial part of creating a truly sustainable society—from bike co-ops to forest restoration, many of the most encouraging environmental initiatives I have covered in recent months have come neither from government, nor business, nor even the traditional non-profit world. But rather from citizens who are sick of waiting around for someone else to fix the problems they see around them.

I'm also not saying we should never make cuts to government initiatives either. I just think that government and civil society need to work in partnership—and to do that requires strategy, adaptability, and a healthy detachment from the dogma of either the left or the right.

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