Where is everybody?
Newsletter 19 Sep '22
The elusiveness of real community in the modern world, and why it's such a crucial part of sustainability.
I've recently been conducting interviews with One Small Step users about their experience using the app, to better understand the challenges they face trying to live more sustainably.
After several interviews, I began to notice a recurring refrain. It sounded something like this: "It’d be so nice if I felt like I belonged somewhere, that there were other people who felt and acted the same way as I did."
This sense of frustration and isolation is common amongst One Small Step users, who often feel that their own attempts to live sustainably– no matter how conscientious– are neither reflected nor appreciated by the people around them. Essentially, they lack community.
So what is it to have a 'sense of community'? Personally, I see it as a dynamic grounded in non-transactional support, sharing and solidarity.
It's people rallying together, generously pooling shared resources– both practical and emotional– to achieve a common goal, and receiving and giving help without keeping score. There may be a set of norms– some explicit, some unspoken– that keep the tight-knit fabric of the community together, but the aim is the enhanced wellbeing of all members.
A lot has already been written about the degradation of community in the modern era, and what this can do to our collective wellbeing and sense of belonging. Community is about caring. People passionate about the environment and sustainability are in the practice of caring about things outside of themselves. So it makes sense that these people would feel the growing absence of community so keenly.
"There is no substitute for real world, physical communities. Even the biggest introvert in the world needs social contact... "
There’s also the argument that communities of people acting together locally is much more powerful– entrenching pro-environmental behaviors much more deeply– than individuals trying to strike out on their own without practical support or modelling.
What I’m saying is that there is no substitute for real world, physical communities. Even the biggest introvert in the world needs social contact.
We’re dealing with an epidemic of loneliness and isolation that is getting worse, with serious health implications. I believe this degradation has a flow-on effect in terms of our ability to operate in environmentally sustainable ways. For example: you’re more likely to buy a brand new, seldom-used leafblower off Amazon than ask Bill and Sandesh down the road if you can borrow theirs, if you barely speak to Bill and Sandesh.
At the risk of ageist stereotyping, it seems to me that older generations, and those born and raised in remote or regional areas, tend to have an in-built set of skills for how to build community. For someone like me, a big nerd with somewhat limited social intelligence who grew up in urban inner Sydney, I find it a bit harder.
With One Small Step, Marc and I are keen to remedy this sense of disconnection.
We've recently built out Community and Group features, so anyone in any local area can now start their own form of community, invite whoever they want, make announcements, set emission reduction goals, and set sustainability challenges for members of the group to complete. You can post about any topic to get advice or support in the general Community feed or in any local community groups in One Small Step you join as well.
Much like the sharing economies of Facebook, Good Karma Network and Buy Nothing Groups, I’d love for One Small Step to become part of the infrastructure of local communities; completely self-directed and moderated by real local community members, with clusters around sustainable practices and community-level decarbonization efforts (except without an amoral monolith tech giant like Facebook gobbling up everyone’s data and selling it to the highest advertiser/bidder).
It’s easy to dismiss individual and community-led action, and instead fixate only on government inaction, structural inequalities, financial pressures, corporate greed, entrenched late-stage capitalism, and make any number of arguments about how banding together as regular people to tackle climate change is too adverse, too futile, or too costly to bother.
However I believe we have much more power and influence than we often realize. When we form communities around our shared goals, our personal agency is magnified exponentially– and it’s not just about the direct and rapid positive impacts we can have on the environment around us, it’s also about how it makes us feel. Contributing to a group, in pursuit of a shared cause, builds strength, momentum and resilience– nourishing the individual and their community alike.
I’ll leave you with this demonstration video, which shows the new ways you can now participate in connecting with people in your community via the One Small Step app. As always, I'm keen to hear your thoughts and ideas for what we could do to keep improving these community–building tools, to help you build real-world connections with those around you, and to form a collective that supports one another to decarbonize our homes, lives and communities.