Can Strong Communities Help Build Solutions To Climate Change?

By Auden Schendler and Jeffrey York via Denver Post

What might you expect to find in communities where “family values” are the strongest? More churches? More parents helping out in classrooms? Maybe more bake sales? Yes, perhaps. But there’s one thing you would definitely find: solar panels.

Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder shows that one modern marker of communities with greater “family interdependence” — a social science term that indicates the value a person places on time spent with their family — is that more new solar energy businesses take root. Further, where state solar incentives are in place, high levels of family interdependence seem to supercharge the effectiveness of those incentives.

These aren’t just weird facts. The information is mind-blowing. It suggests that if government cares about solving climate change, or clean energy jobs, or entrepreneurship, then social norms — the unwritten rules of community conduct — might matter as much as rebates and incentives.

In short, for President Obama to meet his goal of responding to the threat of climate change and sow the seeds of clean energy development, he may not only need to build consensuses in Congress and implement the right economic policies. He might also need to rebuild Mayberry; to increase societal cohesion, neighborliness, family relationships, and community-mindedness. In fact, bolstering civic participation and fostering communities that value family might be just as important as economic policy in fixing climate change.

But this borders on crazy talk. The “family values” people are the very ones who oppose climate solutions; they hate the idea of “social engineering.” Could they, nonetheless, have been on to something? Is there something to our collective nostalgia for Mayberry?

We think so. Perhaps the new businesses we’ll need to help solve climate change can best be encouraged by old values that we’ve lost in a world where “social” means isolating yourself indoors on Facebook. Taking it one step further, maybe one of the reasons we can’t seem to solve climate change is that unaffiliation and non-participation (dodging your neighbor in the driveway so he or she doesn’t get you off schedule) have replaced the cohesiveness of past communities where you knew the paper boy and you didn’t lock the door.

How might we change this?

In the past, the mechanism for growing “family values” and ethics in the community was religion. The Pew Center on Religion and Public Life notes that now one-fifth of Americans check “none” as their religious affiliation — higher than at any time in recent U.S. history. Those younger than 30 especially seem to be drifting from organized religion. So indirect government support for the religious community — like George W. Bush’s efforts to invigorate faith-based nonprofits — probably isn’t the answer.

Instead, one idea might be to expand funding for AmeriCorps, even killing two birds with one stone by creating a “climate corps” where young people can weatherize buildings for a year. Another approach might be to resurrect, through funding and presidential leadership, participation in non-faith based social organizations like the Lions Club.

Perhaps the best route to strengthen the role of families in our lives is to encourage community building at our public schools. What if we rebuilt our families and communities using the place where they come together, while simultaneously addressing a budget shortfall and improving education?

If we want family interdependence, let’s reward it. How about low-interest college loans, or even vouchers, for moms and dads who volunteer more than 160 hours in their kid’s school?

Sure, that’s difficult. But it has become clear that to endure in a climate-changed world, we’ll have to love (and be loved) by our neighbors in a more real, and a more meaningful, way. Maybe a few hours of volunteering every month is a small price to pay.

Auden Schendler is vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. Jeffrey York is an assistant professor at the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado at Boulder. Reprinted with permission of the authors.

8 Responses to Can Strong Communities Help Build Solutions To Climate Change?

  1. fj says:

    yep, this is what alex steffen’s “carbon free: . . . ” is about where strong communities make strong cities make strong metropolitan regions effecting tens of millions of people.

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    An excellent article where the research findings closely mirror our own. There is no doubt that social isolation or dissociation has done great damage to the cohesiveness of our communities but they are not dead, “merely resting”. A couple of differences: we found it was community, not family, interdependence that was key to action on climate change, but they are closely correlated. We also found that it was not necessary to build a ‘climate corps’ or rely on schools or orgs such as Lions Clubs, although these can be instrumental in getting the process started. Diverse community people can come together for the purpose of improving their community, to re-empower themselves through taking responsibility for their own futures. Details of theory and process on Research report not finished yet, ME

  3. fj says:

    Consider a competition for New York City’s first net zero neighborhood.

  4. frank says:

    Good article. Perhaps, you might want to rewrite a few comments in Getting Green Done then? Also, climate corps has been talked about for a couple years, think it’s a great idea. Though, EDF already owns the moniker for a program that places businesses school students in summer sustainability minded internships.

  5. Chris Mclean says:

    Hey, don’t forget internet based communities =)

    They too can learn to facilitate “community.”

    I’m amused to see this. The philosophy of community certainly isn’t new. Particular regions of the world have attempted to use its tools to combat modern world issues. these same regions have been…targeted for abuse by the social dissociation providers…

    1st world nations singing the virtues of community…the 3rd world have been talking about it far longer.

    So, then, do not create separate 1st world communities. Organize, but join with the long suffering communities we use [exploit] to support our infrastructure.

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Communities, in the sense of geographic, have actually been around as long as there have been humans. It is only since the industrial revolution that we have seen community wither and the reasons for this are understood. It is still in the industrialized West that the problem is greatest. Why not solve the problem and get more effective action on climate change at the same time? No great ‘philosophy’ here and no reason for cynicism, ME

  7. Great to read this just a few days after writing a similarly themed post following a symposium in NYC: “Community and Sustainability”

  8. MarkfromLexington says:

    Can anyone provide a link to the UC Boulder report? I haven’t found one yet.