Whether we are or whether we are not in a period of crisis of community, certainly as the media like to portray us as being in, much of the essence of community spirit and community action is based on both perception and numbers. If a community is perceived to be dying by the people who live in it, or at the very best perceived as being inactive then it generally becomes less active as a result. Certainly I know personally of many communities that still have their local groups, intergenerational contact and community events but there is definitely a tendency to hark back to ‘the good old days’ when community was the essence of living and everyone relied on each other in an ecology of symbiotic reliance. This is a very broad sweeping statement. Of course all communities are different: different in size, different in constitution, different in linguistic framework, race or class and certain communities are ‘closer’ than others. However, again it is the perception that other communities are fading that generally affects our own local community and that is the disease that leads to real communities reducing in their vigour.
The other main reason that a community may need rekindling is because it has lost its raison d’être, its centre of gravity or its purpose. That purpose may have been supporting younger people get on in life but the community has now changed in demographic because all the young people have moved on and either cannot afford to live in the community because of inflated house prices or cannot find work in the community so are forced to move away. The purpose may have been providing friendship and acting against the frightening reality of loneliness, a key problem in 21st Century western society. The purpose may have been providing institutional frameworks that can both provide support but also instil a sense of community through the organisation of community events. At the centre of all of these purposes are the people who are willing to volunteer their time and energy to the community. Sadly, in many communities there is a perception that ‘other people’ can be those people and therefore they do not come forward to help and the community slowly dies. Further, the more we look out to other communities the less we look to our own, the more isolated we become and the weaker the bonds between local people become.
However, we face an opportunity in the new ‘age of environmentalism’, a time when being an environmentalist is no longer as ‘weird’ as it used to be but in fact mainstream. To care for your local environment should be seen as an act of caring for your community, because it certainly is. We should encourage environmental projects because they provide the opportunities to rekindle community, something just as important as rekindling the vitality of wildlife if we are to succeed in forging a future healthy ecosystem, one where plants and animals (including humans) can live together sustainably and one where we halt or at least rapidly slow down the rate of extinction of species. These projects should be both imagined and acted upon within the local community and by the local community. Those with power have subsumed us so much that we now delegate not only the ‘tasks’ to ‘them’ but also the ‘thinking’ to them. Surely the best people to act for their community are the local people themselves. It should be the role of external organisations, politicians and civil servants to inspire local people to act and offer ideas but not necessarily to act themselves. Experts can provide the advice and the know-how for taking projects forward but it is vital that local people don’t feel like outsiders in the place where they live when it comes to their environment. Experts and politicians should be there for local people, not the other way around. It is bizarre in the essence of what politics should be that we have ever got to the stage of this existence anyway. Politicians are our elected representatives, part of our communities and yet we still carve a dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, leading to a break in trust and a feel of being threatened by the authorities who our elected representative is now representing.
Local people should care about their environment but critically should care enough to want to act to conserve it themselves. By having an external organisation impose something upon them against their will only draws them away from caring for their environment and hence their community. We need to encourage a system whereby local people are the champions for their own environments and their own communities. If we can achieve this then we may be able to rekindle at least the perception that communities can and indeed are thriving. However, it isn’t the politicians who will do this. How can they possibly do something that is so personal? It is up to us to act. Go and volunteer, go and join or form a community group, apply for funding for a community project, inspire others to do the same, visit your neighbours, visit and elderly neighbour, smile and say good morning to people walking down the road; the list is almost never ending but we are all (and I count myself also when I say this) charged with the same offence. Some of us are better than others but we could all do that little bit more for our community and hence our local environment.