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by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 28
February 2020

The zero-carbon future might save our communities

If we want to maintain relationships, we will have to move less
by Elizabeth Oldfield
Good communal life is about strong, positive relationships, but it is also about something more tangible

What makes a community strong? I’ve just got back from a two-day conference on this question, and one theme emerged repeatedly: long term local relationships. These relationships form the bedrock of a community, where people stay for a long time and flourish as active citizens and leaders. They are bound by a high trust and a culture of neighbourliness which can withstand shocks, from economic contraction to natural disasters like floods.

This was a gathering of practitioners, social scientists and public servants who were most concerned about vulnerable communities which lack these networks of relationships. There are all kinds of academic ways of speaking of it — social capital, citizenship scaffolding, community anchor institutions — but it comes down to something that we used to do naturally, and now don’t. A highly mobile, highly individualised culture has great benefits for those that can leave, opening up opportunities and horizons. For the communities they leave behind, it’s not so great.

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There are clearly many other interconnected factors in community resilience, not least the wider economic context, government policy around services, physical space, and so on — but again and again it was clear that people who commit and collaborate for the good of their place over the long term are the “secret sauce”. Wendell Berry, that great poet and essayist of rural America calls these “stickers” rather than “boomers”; David Goodhart called them “somewheres” rather than “anywheres”.

I am, or at least have been, a “boomer” and an “anywhere.” I moved for university and then again to London to work at the BBC. I bridled (and still do) at Theresa May’s “if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”, in its aggressive tone and insensitivity to the millions who have moved because they had no other choice. The anti-immigrant and anti-diversity undertone in some champions of place-based belonging troubles me, and I fear expressions of nationalism that exclude and divide.

However, a liveable, zero-carbon future will force us into being more “somewhere”. If we want to maintain relationships, we will have to move less. Like many others, I am no longer flying unless it is absolutely vital, and am adjusting to the idea my children’s adventures may have to be more intellectual and spiritual than geographical. Alongside a sense of loss in this, I’m realising that long term commitment to place has many benefits. It could make us, as communities and a society, more resilient, more trusting, more hopeful, and better prepared for the shocks that seem sure to come.

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