Profound Community Orientation

TLDR; a limiting social factor on the size of the economy should be the strength and embeddedness of community. A great deal of trouble has gone into ensuring people see themselves as individuals rather than integral parts of a functioning community. This has lead to incredibly detrimental social ailments in both mental and physical health.

This is a series of posts linked with my PhD project – Social Limits to Growth. These posts describe some of the theory, thinking, and correlations each of these “EE approaches to the social sphere” have with research that was conducted for my PhD. For a full overview of my PhD see my main project page.

The main motivation for these series of approaches is that while ecological economics takes biophysical limits seriously, there is often limited discussion on what the social limits to our economy are. For example, the balance between how alienated/anxious/depressed a person becomes to produce an efficient product should be limited by assurance that a person is getting gainful meaning from their work and labour. So just as nitrogen is a biophysical limit to growth, alienated and meaningless work is also a social limit to growth.

Here is a list of the works cited throughout my thesis and all these posts. References to “city 9” “pei 11” or “maker 1” are references to participants in my research.

With Daly, I agree that the role and strength of a community within which an economy is embedded is important. The reason that many of the other social limits I explore are more evident in the rural case study is because they had a stronger community orientation within which to encourage strong mental health, reform education, and collectively consume. In this post I explore the importance of community, processes that undermine community, possibilities from the research for reigniting community, and the problem of localized community versus global empathy.

In 1938, The Harvard Study of Adult Development began collecting data on what makes people (men, specifically) happy and healthy. The results of their longitudinal study found that, without a doubt, what keeps people happy into their old age is strong and healthy relationships (Waldinger and Schulz 2010; Waldinger et al. 2015). Waldinger and his research group found that tending to one’s relationships is a form of long-term self-care. Strong relationships protect people from depression, delay declines in mental and physical health, and are a better predictor of happiness than class, IQ, or biology.

There is a strong link related to marital relationships, but Waldinger also found that women with secure attachment to their parents were less depressed and happier with better memory functions than those with less secure attachments. In his TED talk, expanding on his extensive academic writing on the subject, Waldinger claims “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism”.

These initial findings came into public attention years ago, and yet the importance of strong community and relational bonds are still not actively encouraged.

When buying a pack of cigarettes, consumers are faced with images of cancerous lungs and children inhaling smoke, but when we log onto our computers we are greeted with happy AI assistants such as Cortana and Siri, or pleasant messages from Facebook wishing us a good morning. Perhaps there should be images of depressed, jealous, and unhappy individuals on these sites, reminding us to cultivate and tend to our relationships.

While this sounds farfetched, a 2014 study found that social media use is directly correlated with lower rates of happiness in relationships and high divorce rates (Valenzuela, Halpern, and Katz 2014). While there are some social benefits of social media (such as reducing barriers for those with social anxiety (Steinfield, Ellison, and Lampe 2008)) there is evidence that it creates artificial relationships rife with jealousy and bullying while decreasing happiness and efficiency in work life (Muise, Christofides, and Desmarais 2009; Brooks 2015).

If social media interrupts our relationships, and relationships are a key to wellbeing, happiness, and health later in life, there is a strong argument for state intervention in the amount of time spent online. However, the opposite is happening. When individuals watch television, read blogs, see advertisements, or even attend public lectures or government sponsored events they’re encouraged to tweet, use the event’s hashtag, and follow along on social media – there is cultural force to discourage community by continuously encouraging use of social media to engage with others.

The pervasiveness of social media, despite its negative impacts on wellbeing, is attributable, in part, to the role it plays in providing rapid information and increasing consumerism. Social media assists in creating a strong bond between brands and consumers. It plays a strong role in helping individuals curate and solidify their identity among peers and assists brands at targeting the individuals who would most want their goods. Social media therefore plays a strong role in the perpetuation of individualization, self-obsessed identity development, and consumerism. Consumption is designed as a central vehicle to communicate self-identity, an obsession of many in modern society.

In Risk Society, Beck begins with the notion of reflexive modernization, which is a process wherein tools of modernity (such as technology or science) are continuously used and innovated in an attempt to counteract the problems engendered by previous rounds of modernization. Modernization is applied to itself as experts attempt to control or predict a range of unpredictable and complex risks.

Beck goes on to apply the notion of reflexivity to an intensification of the process of individualization. He argues that this happens in three stages:

1) disembedding, or removal from historical forms of commitment,
2) loss of traditional security in relation to practical knowledge, or knowledge communicated inter-generationally or via faith systems (what Gellner calls ‘acculturation’) and
3) a new type of social commitment emerges wherein individuals “become the agents of their own livelihood mediated by the market” (1992, p. 130; and facilitated by rationalized systems of formal exo-education).

This process is exemplified through the process of farmers migrating into cities during the Industrial Revolution. Through this process, the individual is removed from traditional relationships (family, face-to-face relationships), which are exchanged for a place in the labour and consumer markets. These traditional relationships are then replaced by secondary institutions resulting in an individual’s dependence on “fashions, social policy, economic cycles, markets” (1992, p. 131) – this despite the fact that the same individuals believe that they are experiencing greater freedom and choice. Within this process, individuals shift increasingly from a prescribed to ‘elective biography’ (Giddens 1991) – meaning they are increasingly forced to choose and mold their social identity and bolster that via consumption.

The question is what kinds of imaginative futures help to shift culture so people will give up easily identifiable markers of success for something equally gratifying but less environmentally harmful?

From Beck’s perspective, appropriate measures might include limiting time on social media, and re-establish face-to-face relationships. In some instances, PEI participants do this because it comes with community commitment. This links back to Daly’s initial argument that community is the most important determinant of a socially responsible economy. If a group of people have a strong community, there may be a greater change that the local prefigurative politic will take hold because there is critical mass. Therefore, in community settings, self-esteem inducing behaviours such as making can flourish more freely because it feeds into the larger project of community success. 

This explains why Makers in PEI were more likely to share or gift their goods, and commented more regularly on the important and vital role community plays in their lives, hobbies, and livelihoods. Those in stronger and more holistic socio-economic settings were more likely to demonstrate inclinations towards the characteristics of the ecological economic social sphere that I have laid out.

Makerspaces thrive on a community feel, and people will often go there just to hang out. 91.6% agreed that being a part of the Makerspace was an important part of their extended community. City 1 said that it is the community of making that has made Kitchener so strong in the face of manufacturing and labour changes over the past 40 years. They claim that a local Kitchener company will always try and find other local Kitchener companies to take people on if they’re going to close. Blackberry employees were absorbed by the starts ups at Communitech through the help of the city. City 1 said that this is the heart of a maker community and that that approach is integral to having a city that is able to transition through economic phase changes.

While community orientation is an extremely important characteristic for the achievement of a low-growth society, it also presents one of the biggest challenges.

For hundreds of years following the French Revolution, the streets and countryside were still filled with peasants speaking regional dialects with no association or connection to ‘France’ as a country. Between 1870 and 1914 a series of new and linked administrative and regulatory regimes fell upon the French countryside namely the judicial system, the church, roads, a market economy, and the school system. The result was a transformation of these peasants into ‘Frenchmen’ who spoke Parisian French, had national pride, and would fight for their country.

This process happened all over Europe as (implicit) social contracts were built between the European population and the state. An important social contract was the state’s control over violence. Supported by military institutions and police agencies, the modern state promises a general expectation of peace – unlike our ancestors, we normally worry much less about our neighbor killing us for our food or other reasons.

Some of the participants in the Maker Culture study, specifically those who have made ‘making’ into their family’s entire livelihood (preppers, homesteaders, 3 additional Makers), question this contract. These participants were beginning to develop ‘outgroup antagonism’ evident through statements such as “I have guns for when it gets bad”; “When it comes down to it, only my family matters at the end”; and “I don’t mean to be mean but if we keep our borders wide open we’ll be in a real pickle”.

In a low/no growth society, it is conceivable and even likely that military and police forces would be much smaller. Military and police expenditures are often quite large, and with fewer tax revenues to support all systems, it, like most government services, would potentially need to contract. However, over time, microcosms establish ‘we’ (insider) and ‘they’ (outsider) images that reinforce divisions between small groups (Elias and Scotson 1994).

In a pre-modern and place-bound society, a person’s empathic circle contained only their primary community as this was their necessity for life (Berman 2000). Extending empathy to other individuals outside of this circle is driven by industrialization. As working-class consciousness evolved, individuals outside of family units began to unite and relate over class-based conflicts. Through individual emancipation, built on the growth of the economic liberal democratic society, people began to identify with the culture of self-actualization (Marcuse 1964).

Additionally, toward the end of the 1960s, new social cohesion formed around globalized risks faced by an increasingly interconnected global community (Beck 1992). This helped to extend an individual’s empathic circle (Ehrlich and Ornstein 2012; Rifkin 2009). Ehrlich and Ornstein argue that empathy has been the primary driver of human progress calling for us “to emotionally join a global family” (2012, p. 5). Similarly, Rifkin asks us to make a leap to “global empathic consciousness” as this is the most likely way we’ll save the world from environmental destruction (2009, p. 42), yet recognizes that “the tragic flaw of history is that our increased empathic concern and sensitivity grows in direct proportion to the wreaking of greater entropic damage to the world we all cohabit and rely on for our existence”.

Similarly, Elias (2014 [1939]) argued that social complexity and growing intensity of interdependencies between individuals and groups, alongside state monopoly of violence, led to the internalization of external constraints and engendered a more pacific personality structure and a profound reduction in interpersonal violence.

In a time of de-growth and perceived scarcity, this could potentially breakdown processes of extended empathy as individuals would turn inward, protecting their family and immediate community, which could lead to significant civil unrest. Rifkin rejects this to some degree, arguing that as ‘homo empathicus’ humanity has a tendency towards conviviality and collective nature. On the exact opposite side of that argument, Elias’s thesis suggests that any loss of complexity and sustained reduction in interdependency would lead to loosening of internalized controls – violence in particular (Mennell 1990). Pinker suggests that the five ‘inner demons’ of humanity (all centered around violence) are only at bay because of five historical forces that favor humanity’s peaceful motives: the leviathan, commerce, cosmopolitanism, feminization, and the escalator of reason (2012) – all of which are upheld by the growth paradigm. For example, Pinker points out that the likelihood that a country will be torn by “violent civil unrest…starts to soar as its annual per capita domestic production falls below $1,000” (p. 682).

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