Today I am happy to say that we have a guest blogger, author Chris Benjamin (http://www NULL.chrisbenjaminwriting NULL.com/). Chris has just launched his new book, Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada (http://www NULL.chapters NULL.indigo NULL.ca/books/Eco-Innovators-Sustainability-Atlantic-Canada-Chris-Benjamin/9781551098630-item NULL.html?ikwid=chris+benjamin&ikwsec=Books), which tells the story of 35 people making a contribution to a more sustainable community.

(http://www NULL.beyondattitude NULL.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Chris-Benjamin NULL.jpg)
Author/Journalist Chris Benjamin
Take it away, Chris:

At my most cynical I think “community-based” anything is a crock. Like the term “green” it’s been stretched beyond value or meaning.

We’ve got a community for everything: racial communities, religious communities; taxpayer communities; (oxymoronic) Diaspora communities; and (at times simply moronic) online communities. But those things are only bunches of people with things in common.

Real community is more united, as in they act as units, they work and play together – live and sometimes die together.

Like the Finnish beavers in Toronto. They’re an informal community within the already specific Finnish-Canadian church there. They’re a group of old handy guys who meet weekly to maintain and repair the church, their spiritual home. They also do occasional work on congregation members’ homes and stick around for pulla and coffee.

That kind of unity is rare in Canada, even in Atlantic Canada where we consider ourselves particularly community-oriented. The closest we come is in our workplaces and homes, but we like to keep those two things as separate as possible. We call that Work-Life Balance and it’s become a higher value than community.

So when I first heard the term “community-based social marketing” I thought, “Well there’s a mouthful of nothing.” Both my degrees focused on persuasion. And, sadly, community has little to do with it.

Those doing the persuading often carry abstract notions of the Greater Good, but the process does nothing to involve or build community in a broad sense. As much as political leaders love claiming to speak for Haligonians, or Nova Scotians or Canadians, building that kind of broad consensus isn’t an efficient way to make laws, or get people to buy whatever you’re selling.

But I was a young environmentalist and CBSM was hot, so I read Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s book and I attended a workshop. I practiced the steps in my programming: identify the things keeping people from changing their behaviour; remove the barriers; ask people to publicly commit to making the desired change; reward good behaviour. Start small and bring people along the continuum: first carpool, then take the bus, then ride the bike, for example.

In fact, I worked with Lura Consulting (http://www NULL.lura NULL.ca) to implement the Greater Toronto Area anti-idling campaign in 2003. My volunteers spoke with thousands of drivers, offering token rewards in exchange for their commitment not to idle, their promise to “turn off my car when I pull over.” Almost every driver they spoke to made the commitment. The media loved it. It was a feel-good, can-do campaign.

But me, I still had my doubts. Somebody really smart, with an amazing spreadsheet, figured idling accounted for 3 percent of traffic-caused air pollution. What about the other 97 percent? What about the energy used making the vehicles? What about the damage caused by laying down roads – always more roads.

It wasn’t that we weren’t doing good – we were. But was it enough?

My standards are high. What I want to see happen – what I think should be our communal objective – is that humans should re-learn how to live on this earth in a healthy and fair way that can be sustained indefinitely. For that to happen, driving needs at the very least to be drastically cut – 90 percent fewer vehicles is a reasonable objective, keeping the survival goal in mind.

And still keeping that goal in mind, it’s hard not to despair at times, as I ride my little bike through ever-worsening traffic filled with ever-bigger cars to my little organic grocer or the market or a fair trade café.

These places make up yet another incomplete community – a bunch of folks working mostly independently to reform capitalism, change the way we do business so that people and other life forms are cared for and sustained, healthily. Their efforts are inspiring and hopeful, and keep me going in the face of a lot of scary evidence that we’re making ourselves unwelcome here, that, to put it bluntly, humanity will soon suffer a massive and bloody die-off. They are the guerilla subversives, sneakily pushing our capitalist machinery onto a happier course.

We need a whole lot more of them. That community needs to grow. And like other semi-communities, it needs to better work, love, laugh and live together.

Which is why I wrote Eco-Innovators, and why CBSM had to be part of the book. Like my alternative-economy semi-community in Halifax, what inspired me about our anti-idling CBSM campaign in ’03 was not the outcome so much as the process – the very existence of it. In the GTA we stopped thousands of harried drivers long enough to have serious conversations and say, “Yes, I care about the health of this community. No, I don’t want to be the guy polluting it. Yes, I will turn off my engine when I pull over for a coffee, or to pick up my kids, or wherever.”

I’ve since witnessed greater outcomes – further along the continuum of sustainable commitments – from CBSM, most notably province-wide composting and recycling programs with 90 percent+ participation rates.

Almost nobody wants to be The Guy who hurts the community – the One Person who won’t sort the recycling or take out the compost, or show up when the church has a broken banister. Once sustainable behaviour becomes normalized people don’t want to be left out.

Marshalling communities, even semi-communities, to commit to positive environmental change helps the world in two ways: 1) It makes the small positive change and, 2) (more importantly) it builds better, more unified communities who have stepped onto the sustainability continuum together.

The Power of One is nice and all. But this crisis was made by many. And if we’re going to get through it, we need the Power of Community.