Community, anxiety and security: how do these play in work on climate change?
July 31, 2011 § 1 Comment
A sense of community is almost universally regarded as valuable. It is like motherhood: a general and unquestioned good. Activists feel they should be embedded “in the community” while governments hope “the community” will deliver services they no longer wish to invest in. But what exactly is “the community”? What is its psychological and emotional meaning and how does this impact on its possibilities as an arena for change? Who owns and controls it? Who are its gatekeepers and guardians? Who defines its boundaries, rules and membership?
We know that community is a slippery concept by its use in such sleights of hand as “the international community” – code for a coalition of the powerful – or “care in the community” – the current term for the neglect of those least able to look after themselves. In his book Contested Communities Paul Hoggett draws attention to the intensely political nature of the term, the way it is saturated with power relationships, unspoken assumptions and conflicting meanings.
In pursuing “the community” as an arena for action on climate change we would do well to remember the complexity that lies behind the common usage. As definitions extend beyond the geographical to embrace communities of identity and communities of intent most people find themselves part of more than one community. The interests of one part of a community may conflict with the interests of another. Different groups may seek to impose their view of community on each other. The more powerful set themselves up as gatekeepers and rule-makers, defining who does and doesn’t belong. Self-interest, anxiety and the creation of in-groups and out-groups often lie behind the ideal that everyone hopes to sign up for.
Thinking about community is often infused with romantic longing for an idealised past. Community, in this trope, was a place of stability, order and acceptance, where everyone knew each other, neighbours looked out for each other, trouble was quickly dealt with and everyone pulled together in times of crisis or celebration. History suggests that this is an imaginary rather than an actual place. Not only have most communities seen more population movement than is suggested by this idealised picture but the stability that does exist in more settled communities brings with it restrictive social norms and rigid moral codes. A sense of belonging and security come at a price: not everyone is included. Not all types of behaviour are acceptable.
Risk, anxiety and security
The psychological roots of this yearning for a sense of community lie in the basic needs of early childhood that are normally met by good parenting. The small child does not doubt that he or she belongs. Parents – usually the mother – mediate and interpret the world, providing safety, security and protection. In adult life these needs are no longer met unconditionally. The reverses and difficulties of ordinary life intervene. Security is not a given but is contingent. It is not surprising that when people are under pressure of any kind a yearning develops for the consistent, loving security of childhood. In circumstances of social and political upheaval this yearning can be projected onto and sought in idealised notions of a lost community that needs to be recreated. The challenges – climate change amongst them – that Ulrich Beck designates as ‘risk society’ make a retreat towards comforting and idealised notions of the local more rather than less likely. The writings of both Phillip Blond, architect of the ‘big society’ and Rob Hopkins, doyen of the Transition movement tend in this direction.
At a more cognitive level a values analysis (see the Common Cause handbook) locates the sense of belonging that is crucial to community alongside values of security, tradition and conformity and distant from the universalist values of concern for nature, equality and social justice that are key to long-term commitment on climate change. This is reflected in the tendency of local communities to act defensively and protect the status quo, closing ranks against outsiders or new ideas. (They are more inclined to campaign against wind turbines than for them, for example).
Resisting the reactionary side of community
These conservative pulls at both the emotional and cognitive levels make it likely that community will be a deeply contested arena for people trying to introduce change. Most activists look to “the community” as a source of hope, as a bulwark against the corporate domination of everyday life, and as a counter-balance to the centralising tendencies of government. It is important to recognise that “the community” can also function as a false solution to anxiety and threat. It can be idealised and romanticised and its members can look selfishly inwards. Working “in the community” we may need to talk openly about the real sources of people’s anxiety and mistrust and embrace community as a place of argument, debate and difference rather than as a place of safety and belonging.