Can Flourishing Communities Fix the World?

FEATURED RESEARCH PAPER, TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 21 Oct 2019

George Kent – TRANSCEND Media Service

18 Oct 2019 – If we don’t see a way to end hunger in our communities, what hope is there for ending hunger in the world? In a previous essay on Nourishing Communities I argued that a good way to address the hunger problem is to focus on how local communities function (Kent 2018a; Kent 2019a). Where people live together well and are not exploited by outsiders, there is little hunger, even if those people have little money.

Local communities are the cells that together comprise the world. In this sequel to that earlier essay, flourishing communities are those in which people live well together. They provide models that could be adapted in different parts of the world, and at the same time provide pathways for achieving global goals. The world works better when its component parts work better. I call this the cellular approach to dealing with big problems. The health of the larger body is established by ensuring that its cells and the interactions among them all function well.

This approach can be used to deal not only with hunger but also other big issues such as climate change, economics, disaster management, and peace. This approach is based on a simple observation. People are more likely to care about the well-being of people and things close to them than about people and things far away. Caring works best at the local level.

Caring

Most people most of the time treat each other nicely. There is a strong evolutionary basis for that (Christakis 2019). Caring is so common we might not notice it. Caring can be defined as acting to benefit others. The term can refer to the action or to the underlying motivation for it. The focus here is on empathetic caring, the caring that is rooted in our capacity to share others’ feelings. With caring, your well-being is linked to and affected by others’ well-being. Their feeling good makes you feel good, and their feeling bad makes you feel bad (Kent 2015).

Caring should not be confused with charity.

This needy man is seeking charity. In flourishing communities, there would be so much steady and deep mutual caring, no one would become so needy. As Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe put it, the challenge is not to do charity better, but to make charity unnecessary.

 

Empathetic caring is different from from instrumental caring of the sort done by a hired caretaker. Empathetic caring is about action taken for the purpose of benefiting others. Instrumental caring is offered in exchange for some direct benefit to oneself, like a paycheck, while empathetic caring is its own reward. Instrumental caring is based on self-interest, while empathetic caring is based on concern for the well-being of another.

In instrumental caring usually there is a clear distinction between those who have needs and those who provide caring for them, as in a care home. In mutual caring, there is no sharp distinction between those who provide care and those who receive it. Empathetic mutual caring is reciprocated informally, not through contracts. With strong mutual caring, there is much less need for deliberately designed caring by specialists. Where the need for caring interventions by specialists grows (e.g., food banks), that could be a sign of the weakening of mutual caring in the community.

Often action to benefit others is undertaken for mixed motives, partly to benefit another, and partly to benefit oneself. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing both at the same time. We often do things for several reasons. Empathetic caring is usually a good thing, but it can be harmful when caring for one person or group leads to actions that hurt others. For example, armed conflict is always undertaken to benefit one group at the expense of others.

Simplifying, we can distinguish three major types of human relations:

  • Caring, in which people feel better off when other individuals are better off, and thus act to benefit others;
  • Indifference, in which people do not care about others’ well-being, and thus do not act to help them or harm them; and
  • Exploitation, in which people benefit from others’ misery.

An employer who pays his workers as little as possible is exploitative. A consumer who buys cheap products from ruthless manufacturers is.  exploitative. Sadists get pleasure from others’ misery. Rapists and pornographers are exploiters. Exploiters draw benefits from hurting others.

Exploitation is often done for what are claimed to be good reasons. You might hire low-wage workers for your business so that you can provide more comfort for your family. Some people kill others to protect their countries. Some discriminate against certain groups in order to protect their own.

People weigh and balance things differently. We don’t all navigate by the same moral compass. Whether intentionally or not, we often benefit from actions that harm others. Caring, indifference, and exploitation can be tied together in complex ways. These are broad and crude categories, but they convey useful distinctions.

Caring Globally

People care about hunger in the world, but not enough. As a result, there has never been a serious plan to end hunger worldwide. Global hunger persists not because of inadequate resources but because of inadequate caring (Kent 2016; 2019b).

We don’t talk much about caring, indifference, and exploitation in relationships among countries, but the concepts are applicable. Interactions among people or countries are shaped by the extent to which they care about each other’s well-being.

To international relations scholars, it might be a bit embarrassing to talk about something so soft as caring among countries, but the reality of it is difficult to deny. It is evident, for example, in the history of international humanitarian assistance. That assistance is about helping individuals in distress, but it is more likely to be sent to countries that are favored by the country providing the assistance. There are calculations about self-interest, of course, but there is also something more motivating the assistance.

People in small communities care more about one another’s well-being than they do about people they don’t know and are far away. People care about each other’s well-being more than countries in the world care about each other.

The golden age of globalization may be over (The Economist 2019). The process of connecting people, goods, and policies over great distances has been going on for only about 200 years. It might be only a transient blip in human history. We may be headed back to friendly ways of living together in small groups. Caring grows where people regularly work and play together. That happens locally, not nationally or globally. Strengthening local communities could be a good starting point for addressing problems that we think of as national or global.

Disasters

All disaster work is rooted in caring for its victims. There are professional disaster specialists, and many other people help out in various ways before, during and after catastrophic events. There are many nongovernmental organizations and neighborhood-based disaster risk reduction programs for which the foundation is caring (PADF 2019; Twigg 2015; UNESCO 2019). In contrast to programs that are set up in advance, many caring actions are spontaneous, not planned in advance.

The importance of informal caring sometimes come to the attention of disaster specialists when they discover that shelters they had arranged as retreats to be used by victims of flooding remain empty. They soon realize that many people prefer to find shelter in the homes of their friends. People affected by disasters help each other in many ways, often as the continuation of the help they steadily provide to each other during normal times.

There are many good examples of informal caring in disaster settings (O’Brien 2019). In some cases what had been spontaneous and informal caring is regularized. To illustrate, inn some cases, infants are found in the rubble, separated from their mothers. Typically, arrangements for feeding them are made as the need arises, but plans can be made in advance for dealing with such situations. In Mandaluyong in the Philippines, when disasters hit the city, lactating mothers with the Breastfeeding Patrol are dispatched to evacuation shelters so they can provide milk for infants (Metro Briefs 2016). There should be more advance planning for that sort of peer to peer caring.The March of Dimes offers guidance on how to take care of your own infant in disaster situations (CARE 2019), but could also also facilitate people’s caring for others’ infants (Kent 2018b).

Professionals who plan for disasters should consider Ilan Kelman’s perspective:

Everyone has a right to demand, and a responsibility to contribute to, preventing disasters. The processes are not about charity and should not occur through the benevolence of “donors” helping “beneficiaries”. They are about supporting everyone while helping oneself, given that immense advantages individually and collectively are seen when supporting oneself and others to prevent disasters (Kelman 2019, 3).

Much more could be done to understand how caring functions, and sometimes malfunctions, before, during, and after disaster events.

Climate Change

In the distant past, local communities developed in harmony with their local environments (Montgomery and Vaughan 2018). However, in the last few hundred years, over-aggressive “development” has led to great harm to the environment, locally and globally. We now need to find ways to undo that harm.

We used to think of day-to-day weather and long-term climate change as things that just happen, things we must accept. But as climate change becomes undeniable, we begin to appreciate that there are ways to change weather patterns, even at the community level. Increasingly, people recognize that their choices about what they do can make a difference. Taking fewer airplane rides, driving electric cars or no cars, and eating less red meat all help to protect the environment. Farming can be done in ways that do less harm to the earth, and even help it heal.

Community-based initiatives can start with easy actions such as planting trees (Carrington 2019; Christophersen 2019) and composting (Food Tank 20919). Underused land could be used to create food forests (Helmer 2019). Trees and other plants draw moisture from the air and into the ground, modifying the local weather and improving the quality of the soil. Trees and plants can be chosen to provide fruit and other useful things. Community and household food gardens can be set up even in difficult circumstances (African Women Rising 2019; Helphand 2006).

Many city and state governments have become active in addressing climate change (Lappé and Field 2019). The path to citizen engagement is becoming more visible (Rice-Oxley 2019). The needs are huge and so are the potentials. The major missing component is visionary leaders for the effort. Communities could learn a great deal from one another about ways to address their climate issues and restore the bits of the earth entrusted to their care.

Economics

The Gross World Product, the sum of all countries’ Gross National Products, is enough for everyone to live well. If flourishing was assessed solely in terms of money income, we would have to conclude that the world as a whole is in fine shape. But wealth is distributed very unevenly (UNDP 2019). The gross domestic product per capita in the richest country is $139,100 while in the poorest it is $700 (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency 2019).

That tells us about inequality between countries, but it doesn’t take account of the further inequality within countries. The world’s largest democracies, the U.S. and India, have a great deal of wealth and also a great deal of poverty (Chappell, Bill 2019; Oxfam International 2019; Telford 2019).

Hunger in the world usually results not from a lack of land, water, and sunshine needed to produce food, but from the fact that the resources around the poor are used to produce food and other things for richer people elsewhere (Hayes 2013). If the major motivation for food production was the increase of public health rather than private wealth, we would have far more health and only a little less wealth (Kent 2018c). Improved health is more likely to be achieved with farming intended to nourish local people than with industrial agriculture designed to sell to the highest bidder globally.

The dominant economic model is severely flawed, but it is not the only option. E. F. Schumacher suggested alternatives decades ago in his famous book, Small is Beautiful. The Foundation for International Community offers free copies (Schumacher 1973). It also sells books on Cooperative Economics and offers endless ideas in its New Communities magazine (Foundation for Intentional Community 2019). Many others have proposed alternative economic systems (Hinton and Maclurcan 2019; Kelly and Howard 2019; Monbiot 2018; 2019; Post Growth Institute 2019; Rushkoff 2019; Williams 2019). Local Futures, a nongovernmental organization, “works to renew ecological, social and spiritual well-being by promoting a systemic shift towards economic localization (Local Futures 2019).”

Current thinking about alternative economic systems puts a great deal of emphasis on local self-sufficiency. It is important to distinguish between self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Self-reliance means that you and your community make your own decisions about how you will live. It is different from self-sufficiency, which means producing what you consume. Self-reliant communities might want to produce more of what they consume, but feel free to trade according to what they see as good choices for themselves. Under some conditions self-sufficiency can increase self-reliance, but if it is overdone it can lead to overdependence on local production and foregoing the benefits of well-managed trade with others.

The pursuit of economic growth can mean increased incomes for the rich while others suffer with the dead-end jobs. The incomes of those who are poorer depends mainly on what they do, their daily work, while the incomes of richer people depend on what they own. Economic growth benefits those at the top far more than those at the bottom. Instead of focusing on increasing wealth, an alternative approach would be to focus on strengthening human relationships. Instead of being ruled by economic transactions, people in the community could care about each other’s well-being on a day-to-day basis in convivial relationships. Since time immemorial, there have been economic systems that support cooperation more than competition.

Peace

There is little hope for managing conflict at the global level if we don’t have good ways to manage conflict at the local level.

The most peaceful countries are small ones that have no interest in overpowering their neighbors (Global Peace Index 2019). Flourishing communities are like that. Groups that are very different can live peacefully in side-by-side communities so long as each of them is content with its living conditions. Their people are likely to be less aggressive toward each other and toward other communities. Communities that are more peaceful internally and externally would help to ensure that the world as a whole is more peaceful.

This approach could be applied in the struggles to achieve disarmament. Just as there are many communities with little or no hunger, there are communities with few armaments. That happens not because of laws prohibiting arms, but because people in flourishing communities have no use for them. Perhaps the best strategy for achieving disarmament is to dissipate the motivation for having them.

Some models of economic behavior think of Homo Economicus as simple creatures concerned with nothing more than maximizing their own wealth. This makes life easier for theorists, but people aren’t that simple. Sadly, this approach bled over into international relations, where nationalists or populists argue that the primary motivation for national governments should be the advancement of national interests, with little concern for how this pursuit might affect other nations.

Supporters of this realpolitik outlook, focusing on power relationships, feel that countries should appear to care about one another’s well-being, but only in an instrumental way, not as an emotional thing based on some sort of bond between countries (Bew 2015). Some analysts view diplomacy as a purely transactional business. They assume governments do nice things for other countries solely for the purpose of getting them to do things beneficial to their own country.

Kevin Clements speaks about the need to develop a social order that is based not on having power over others but rather on having power with others:

States like to argue that social systems are dependent on their coercive capacity, without which anarchy would reign. It is important to reverse the optics on these assumptions. Social and economic relationships are arguably more critical to effective, capable, and legitimate governance than coercive capacity. (Clements 2018)

There is no way to change the global social order all at once. To achieve peace in the world the components that make up that world must live in peace. This can be accomplished through judicious application of a wide variety of security and conflict management measures. In well-functioning communities, these measures become less necessary. Well-functioning communities need less policing (Gimbel and Muhammad 2019; Milstein 2015; Trujillo 2015).

It might be possible to to achieve peace in the world incrementally, from the bottom up. Some communities might function so well, they provide appealing models that others adapt to fit their own settings.

Conclusion

We tend to discuss major issues such as conflict, poverty, and climate change in different silos, but their causes and their remedies are interconnected. To illustrate, food is important not only for alleviating hunger, but also for alleviating conflicts. Chef José Andrés, famous for his leadership in providing food in disaster situations, is clear about food’s power to help people live together more peacefully:

There is real power in sitting down with a stranger and sharing a plate of food. It can create a conversation that otherwise wouldn’t happen. And when people come from conflicts, when people come from darkness, the day you are able to cook a hot meal and share a table with the people you love, with your family or your friends or strangers that helped you somehow in your life, that’s one of the most powerful moments in the world. (Sachs 2019)

The social importance of eating together is studied under the label of commensality. It is important at every level of society, ranging from the formal meals at conferences of diplomats to the more modest “potluck” sharing that occurs in local communities. It is a tool of peacemaking at every level.

Flourishing communities are places where people live well together. They flourish on the basis of strong and sustained interpersonal relations. Most have developed by chance. Some have been shaped by deliberate design in what are called, intentional communities. The design of communities has a long and honored history (Christian 2003; Kent 2016, 113-128; Tamarack Institute 2019). We can learn a great deal about the failures as well as the successes from the Foundation for Intentional Community (https://www.ic.org/)  Inevitably, some communities come apart (Blue 2019). If they have decent opportunities, some of their members move to other communities or create new ones. We should work at learning how to strengthen existing communities and how to design new caring communities. Caring is the glue that holds communities together.

The city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil illustrates how hunger can be ended locally (Chappell, M. Jahi 2019; Lappé 2019). Other communities demonstrate different ways to pursue peace, protect the environment, manage disasters and do many other positive things locally. Strengthening local communities is not easy, and in some situations it may be impossible. Even if full success cannot be expected, it makes sense to push in that direction. Instead of always looking upward to higher levels of governance, strong communities empower themselves by looking inward for answers.

Some people think better management of cities might save the world (Bhushal 2019), but cities are not likely to have the depth of caring found in local communities. Would increasing efforts to build strong caring communities be a good way to fix the world? We don’t know, but it is worth trying, alongside of, not instead of, other constructive approaches to dealing with the big problems. There is wisdom to the old adage, “think globally, act locally,” Few of us have opportunities to act globally. That adage can be coupled with the advice to “bloom where you are planted.” We all have opportunities to work on pieces of the big issues right near home.

Flourishing communities would be diverse, each choosing its own way of living without trying to impose its ways on other communities. Unlike ghettos, they would be easy to leave (Schwartz 2019). They would show how people can live together well in many different ways.

Flourishing communities have a special capacity for caring about people and things. They are testing grounds for addressing major global problems. They help to make many good things happen, not only locally but also globally, through their cumulative impact. Well-functioning local communities could collectively add up to a world that works better for everyone.

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After more than forty years of teaching in the University of Hawaii’s Department of Political Science, TRANSCEND member George Kent retired in 2010 as Professor Emeritus. Currently he serves as an Adjunct Professor with the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia and also with the Department of Transformative Social Change Program at Saybrook University in California. He teaches an online course on the Human Right to Adequate Food for both these universities. Professor Kent has worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme and several nongovernmental organizations. He is on the Board of Directors of the International Peace Research Association Foundation. His major books on food policy issues are Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food, Global Obligations for the Right to Food, Ending Hunger Worldwide, Regulating Infant Formula, Caring about Hunger, and Governments Push Infant Formula. He serves as Deputy Editor of the World Public Health Association’s online journal, World Nutrition and as Associate Editor for Public Health Nutrition. He can be reached at kent@hawaii.edu. Academia Website Google Scholar.


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2 Responses to “Can Flourishing Communities Fix the World?”

  1. The strategy indeed merits the deepest attention. Unfortunately there is a fundamental flaw as argued. It is remarkable to note that subscribing enthusiastically to many of the terms and values expressed are local community gangs — not mentioned above. These are only too evident in urban environments in both developed and developing countries — significantly as a consequence of migration. They too celebrate “local community” after a fashion and seek to ensure the orderly dynamics of “their community”. Curiously it is also the case that “gang” may be used as an expression to describe the leadership of the kinds of community on which the author focuses. The missing dimension to the dynamics between the two “models” was dubiously dramatized in the Mad Max movie. Europe is struggling vainly to contain the influence of gangs.

  2. George Kent says:

    Hi Anthony –

    Conflict between gangs certainly can disrupt communities, but so can many other things. What is distinctive about gang conflict that leads you to focus on that issue?

    My essay was about the potential for flourishing communities to make the world-as-a-whole a better place. I defined flourishing communities as places where people live together well. If gang conflict erupts, it is no longer a flourishing community.

    If a conflict between, say, the Crips and the Bloods, cannot be resolved, maybe the community could be divided into two separate communities. Another option would be for one or both of those groups to leave the community. If no remedy can be found, the community could continue on, but not as one that would be described as a flourishing community.

    In my thinking about how to redesign the world order, I have always emphasized the need to accommodate diversity. It is important to resist efforts to homogenize us, as was done, for example, in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the US Supreme Court in 1954 that supported forced racial integration in the US. I can’t accept the Supreme Court’s premise that separate but equal is impossible. In the Israel-Palestine conflict, the two-state solution has been attractive because it would provide spaces in which both of them could flourish, each in their own way.

    Given the wars and the exploitation we see, I would say the global nation-state experiment has failed. It might be useful to recall the older idea, a world based on city-states. Perhaps we should think of a world of community-states in which sovereignty is assigned not to countries or cities but tt small communities, where face-to-face caring matters, and therefore exploitation and indifference are held to low levels.

    The main function of global law would be to prevent those little pods of people from being mean to each other. That is the impulse behind one of my very first papers:

    “Peace Police.” Proceedings: Second International Summer School on Disarmament and Arms Control, Pavia, Italy (1968), pp. 163-170. http://www2.hawaii.edu/~kent/PeacePolice.pdf

    Sure this is utopian, but current systems are not working well at all. We should try building a world based on the understanding that caring is most effective locally. This means governance should be mostly local, in many diverse ways.

    The implementation path I envision is not based on direct confrontation with the powerful. Instead of playing by the rules of that game, which we are certain to lose, we instead work under the radar. We create communities that work so well, others are eager to adapt their ways to their own circumstances. Locals work within whatever freedoms they have locally. And if those are too constraining, they move to more promising locations. They can draw guidance from the intentional communities movement (www.ic.org).

    One thing we would demand under global law is a clear right to exit your current situation. That would put a floor, a lower limit on misery. Those who leave miserable places should be welcomed to other existing communities or have decent opportunities to start their own.

    Yes, there would be difficulties in pursuing this path. Of course. For now, let’s focus on the opportunities it might provide.

    Aloha, George

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