Margin: a wall or a doorway?

People from Permaculture movement are aware that there are already solutions for many problems which humanity is facing today. But somehow the solutions are not implemented in the broader society. While individuals, permaculture initiatives, ecovillages, transition towns and communities around the world have developed multiple tools and approaches for a more resilient culture, the society in general continues to hit ecological boundaries of the planet, sink in economic crises and drown in social challenges.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world build resilient communities able to produce their energy from renewable sources, cultivate food and construct housing in a sustainable manner, live together in a caring way embracing diversity, run social enterprises, build schools fostering creativity and holistic thinking, regenerate local ecosystems and human culture. So what is the wall between those who already work with solutions and those who can’t find them? And how do we break that wall?

The wall is a margin between those cultures. And as any margin it can be turned either into a border, or into a doorway. Where we have the wall now, we can have the connection bringing us together.

These walls are political and corporative structures creating the frames in which our society operates. After decades local initiatives, low-tech solutions, conscious lifestyle and local resilient communities remain hardly seen in the world dominated by corporations and politics. Policy-making often appears to be that border which can become a wall, or a doorway. The key which can close the door, or open it.

Bridging sustainable communities and policy-making

Bridging the voices from communities and permaculture initiatives to the European policy-makers is one of the missions of ECOLISE – European meta-network of community-led initiatives for sustainability and climate change. ECOLISE had been founded three years ago and has its purpose not only to bring the initiatives together as a network but also to connect the knowledge from community-led initiatives to EU policy-making. Now ECOLISE gradually explores how to make European policy-making more participatory, with attention to successful cases of developed solutions within permaculture, ecovillage and transition movements.

In November ECOLISE held a two-day training in Brussels on European policy-making where 8 representatives from Permaculture movement, Global Ecovillage Network, Transition Town movement and academic research had an opportunity to meet with representatives from EU institutions. Permaculture Sweden was represented by Alisa from Suderbyn Permaculture Ecovillage.

During the training the group visited European Parliament for a meeting with Vice President of Environmental Committee, Directorate-General Climate Action for a talk on more participatory approaches in policy-making, and EESC Sustainable Development Observatory for an inspiring discussion on bridging together community actions and policies. “How can the networks working worldwide for the change plug into the policy-making process?” – was the question which ECOLISE team was bearing in mind throughout the sessions.

But wait a minute, why is involvement of the society in policy-making is so necessary for the transition towards more sustainable future? In the Sustainable Development Observatory  the staff, with whom ECOLISE had the meeting, pointed out that already in 1992, a quarter of a century ago, during the Earth Summit in Rio governments agreed that the actions to prevent anthropogenic climate change must be taken, and promised to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations below dangerous anthropogenic interference. Paris Agreement in 2016 held out promises to keep the global warming under 2 degrees comparing to pre-industrial period. Still little is known about how we as humanity are going to reach that target keeping the same production-consumption patterns, and little has been done in terms of policies. Meanwhile the real change is happening all around the world in neighbourhoods, intentional communities, urban and rural ecovillages and initiatives where people develop functioning models of more sustainable society. These changes happen bottom-up on local levels by engaged citizens. To achieve transition of the society towards ecologically, socially, economically, culturally and politically better world we need to bring top-down and bottom-up solutions together, to build the connection between the EU and local level. It requires engagement of communities in the societal processes. An important lesson from the two-days training in Brussels was that EU institutions are not abstract structures but interconnected groups of people many of whom are strongly dedicated to work for positive changes, and they need help from the civil society to foster solutions. As Vice President of Environmental Committee Benedek Jávor stated, the regulations (which often become obstacles for intentional communities, e.g. regarding building standards, water treatment, education, etc) are there not to hinder small communities but to prevent big industries from misusing the resources.

The idea to make EU policy-making more participatory and connected to the stakeholders has been developing for a while from within EU institutions too, not only from active civil society side. During the meeting with ECOLISE team Directorate-General Climate Action was presenting an initiative called “Better Regulation” – the online tool for leaving feedback on EU policies. However, what became clear during the meeting, is that the greatest achievement of the initiative “Better Regulation” is to show the good intention to make policy-making participatory, rather than to actually implement its idea. There is strong criticism around the tools like “Better Regulations”, as the real intervention is possible only on the first stages of forming policies. Feedback, summarised by automatic software, will not change the policy proposals unless it is a massive campaign with hundreds thousands of people raising their voices for the same issue.

Despite firm structure and hierarchy of EU institutions, the system remains affected or even shaped by personal influences, connections and communication. Stepping towards involvement of community-led initiatives in policy-making processes will not be simple, but is absolutely necessary for the broader societal transition. In other words, participatory processes in policy-making will not only provide better legislation in favor of communities, but would be that key which turns a border between intentional communities and mainstream societies into a joint between them. Accelerating the change requires not only deepening awareness and knowledge in communities, transition towns, permaculture initiatives but mainstreaming that experience to the broader society, and collaboration with local, regional and European decision-makers, academia, businesses and all other spheres of the society.

If we want change we should engage and work together, not apart.

Alisa Dendro