Building Community as a Response to Climate Chaos

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by Carmen Rumbaut

Close communities are the best plan for living and growing to the fullest in the time we have left, which may also be the best road to survival.

The climate disasters we are witnessing world-wide are in a feedback loop, screaming louder and louder to get our attention. On the grimly positive side, this situation provides new opportunities for humans to create social change. We are not lacking technological solutions but our political will is weak; too many are left out of the democratic process while others try to hang on to their privileges and identity of superiority. Greater democratic participation through stronger communities is part of the solution proposed here. Even if the dominoes fall faster than expected in this Great Unraveling, close communities are the best plan for living and growing to the fullest in the time we have left, which may also be the best road to survival.

Community involves skills that are difficult unless practiced. It is definitely different than emphasizing privacy. It requires the courage to face the unrecognized hurdles to seeing that the other is as deserving as the self.  Some of those skills are explored here. 

How Did We Get Here?
At this precipice of climate disasters that could devastate the human population by destroying the habitat for all of this planet’s flora and fauna, we take a deep breath and ask ourselves: How did we get here? What we can do? Climate chaos is a result of historical oppression and exploitation, yet it presents an opportunity to create a social community structure based on ecological, anti-oppressive ways. 

The planetary climate abandonment parallels the way we treat each other.

The planetary climate abandonment parallels the way we treat each other. Both are hurt by not understanding our history. We need to recognize historical oppression still playing out in the present moment, and to change at a personal and interpersonal level in order to create a sustainable human relationship to the earth and each other. This is how we prepare for the coming world-wide climate challenges. 

Diversity and Shared Values

Regeneratve Community Experiment at Starseed, July 2018. Photo by Carmen Rumbaut

Political and technological fixes are important, as are the organizations based on mitigating the coming harm and adapting to the new conditions. I believe that understanding how exploitation works in human relationships is also needed. We cannot work together toward a lasting solution until we face up to our history of oppression and exploitation. That ignorance got us here. Recognizing our bigotry and practicing internal changes of view is also a necessary part of the solution to climate chaos. This level of work is only possible in groups; an individual cannot be her own full mirror. That is why I propose a key to the solution is community,  here defined as a group of people who intentionally gather to support each other and to increase their chances of survival and growth.  In short, the community would intentionally adopt the view of  Life-Sustaining Society envisioned by Joanna Macy.[1] In contrast, the Industrial Growth Society uses and destroys. “Our political economy requires ever-increasing extraction and consumption of resources. To the Industrial Growth Society, the Earth is supply house and sewer.”[2]

Our world is becoming more unjust as the wealth gap expands, and economic growth is pursued at the cost of ignoring others’ political rights and freedoms. Human dignity, though cited several times in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, is no longer mentioned in daily discourse. But we do not need to ignore these rights and freedoms in order to combat climate emergencies, “There are ways to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Of the pathways that exist, some simultaneously achieve sustainable development. They entail a mix of measures that lower emissions and reduce the impacts of climate change, while contributing to poverty eradication and reducing inequalities.”[3]

Shared values are needed to be able to pull a community together. When there is agreement on basic shared values then individuals can determine their own way of celebrating their religious views, for example, rather than using them as a differences that creates schisms. This would provide space for those with a strong spiritual path and also others who were harmed by religion.

Communities need a conflict resolution process that involves both the individuals and the collective group. The goal would be to repair the relationships among participants to enable functioning within the group and give group members relief from the conflict. Using the ideas of restorative justice, it would veer away from punishment, judgment, shame, and isolation and focus on listening, understanding, protection, and re-integration. It would seriously consider reparations. 

Intersectionality[4],  the overlapping of forces that create oppression, is an attempt to see the interconnectedness of all the prejudices stemming from sexism, racism, classism, ableism, ethnicism, religious bigotry, and anti-immigrant sentiment, among others. Intersectionality takes into account all of those oppressions and allows for greater compassion for those whose demographics fall into more than one of those groups. This process may involve recognizing one’s own ancestors as both harmed and harmers.  It requires being willing to non-defensively hear and validate the emotions resulting from harm.

Community as Central to Democracy

A life-sustaining community respects ethnicity, language, and culture, while it appreciates and incorporates wisdom from other traditions without extractive ownership. This is fundamental for democracy.

Strong communities are a basic unit for democracy.

Greater democratic participation is needed now to manifest within the political world an expression of the majority of the people. Despite the federal administration’s decimation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the standards it imposed[5], the majority in the USA believe that climate change is occurring[6].  That view is represented in the policies of many local governments such as states and cities who have opted to remain within the Paris Agreement, which the federal administration is trying to exit. Strong communities are a basic unit for democracy[7].  Leadership within and outside of that community must be recognized and developed. 

Different and overlapping leadership systems are inherent in every situation. All sources of power and its abuse need to be acknowledged, whether stemming from political and economic structures, white supremacy or gender-restricting habits, practical abilities naturally gifted to individuals, hard work, or ownership. Leadership works best when it is wide-spread and each person finds an area and a style of leadership. Being aware of our own leadership skills and strengths, as well as the strengths of others, is an essential part of effective leadership. The League of Women Voters describes this well:The vision is of a democracy where every person has the desire, the right, the knowledge and the confidence to participate.” [8]

This goal requires accountability. There has been little accountability for those corporations that polluted our air and land and water while making their profit. By focusing on accountability within the smaller community, there are lessons for the larger picture. By focusing on natural feedback systems as natural consequences, we can learn to listen to the needs of the entire planetary ecology.

Holding each other accountable, allowing for errors to occur, naming harm, and being willing to forgive or at least find compassion are all skills needed for our future. The goal is to develop accountability within each of us; each person must find the accountability that arises internally from a sense of personal responsibility. The group can assist by honoring those who take responsibility, especially after making an error, taking account without punishment, blame, or shame. The intent is reintegration into the whole. 

Immigrants, Prisoners, and Trump Supporters
The future increase of climate refugees and immigrants[9]
will continue to bring up issues of group acceptance and inclusion. Immigration will increase globally as climate disasters make areas unlivable. Yet groups face difficulty in continually changing membership. How will we be able to hold a community whole as new members continually enter? How much voice do they get when they newly arrive? Who pays for what? How do we share costs when wealth distribution is so extreme? Private and public space are needed and recognition of those who reach out to newcomers will be important. The benefits of diversity are reaped as greater creativity is called forth by hearing what other people have invented. Like cross-pollinating for sturdier crops, sharing knowledge and resources builds sturdier communities. 

A large proportion of the population in the USA  is incarcerated or under detention. What if the criminal system returns to valuing reintegration into society rather than punishment? How will previously incarcerated individuals be constructively accepted into communities? How do we reduce the fear of the receiving communities? How can our courts increase the practices of mediation and restorative justice? 

 What about the supporters of the current administration? The numbers polled show that about one third of population in the USA believes in its actions and supports its policies [10]. Perhaps they fear the loss of the privileges made possible by that worldview. How will these folks be treated if the cultural and ideological views of the current administration are undone by a future administration? Is there some Truth and Reconciliation Commission that can help this process? Can we make the future attractive enough for all of us?

Unresolved power issues deform not only personal relationships but also political ones.

Ignoring the US history of oppression and its continuing effects is part of the defense of Extractive Culture.  Unresolved power issues deform not only personal relationships but also political ones. “If we can learn to understand [our] suffering and open to the reality of it, then instead of simply being overwhelmed by it, we can investigate its causes and begin to let them go. Here is where we can be a support for each other.”[11]

Communities are recommended even by those who see human extinction coming [12]. Whatever comes, it seems prudent to work at saving ourselves and the rest of the planet, understanding how we got here, learning compassion for ourselves and each other, and practicing skills for the future, if there is one.

Suggested Actions
Going forth, even with such uncertainty, there are many ways to foster community for the transition to a life-sustaining culture.

Moss at Starseed- Photo by Carmen Rumbaut

  • Build your local community in church, resistance networks, climate awareness groups, family and neighborhood. The local community whose members know each other will be the most resilient. 
  • Open up your heart to greater tolerance without disposing of anyone. Reach out to those who are different.
  • Recognize the power structures that determine the rules you follow and find ways to enter into democratic participation. 
  • Seek ways to learn about your own history, demographic group, and influences; attend workshops where you form a temporary community that helps you face your own biases. 
  • Learn more about interdependence and feedback loops. 
  • Be as vigorous about investigating your own conditioning as you are about critiquing others for how their conditioning manifests. 
  • Get curious about how you are acting out of the conditioning of white supremacy culture, sexism, and other systems of “power over,” regardless of your race, gender, or other privilege or oppression.
  • Explore your own spirituality and make room for more connections. 
  • Work on defining common values and allow for other religious differences. 
  • Find and develop your strengths in leadership while encouraging leadership in others. 
  • Explore practices that allow you to find the deep, calm center in yourself. 

  1. Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life, 2014, pp. 3-4
  2. Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life, 2014, p.2.
  3.  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5C, FAQ 5.2, 2018 
  4. Intersectionality is a word coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw,  a scholar of critical race theory. See “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” The Feminist Philosophy Reader. Eds. Alison Bailey and Chris Cuomo. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 279-309.
  5., “83 Environmental Rules Being Rolled Back under Trump,” N. Popovich, L. Albeck-Ripka and Kendra Pierre-Louis, June 2019.
  6. See, for example,
  9. “…at least 50 million by 2050.”
  11. Joseph Goldstein, “Facing the HeatTricycle, summer 2009.
  12.  “There are also some simple thought reflections and actions that might be helpful: Find your community (or create one). People are beginning to wake up and speak about this all over the world.”

Carmen Rumbaut: Born María del Carmen Rumbaut Riera in Havana, Cuba in the chaotic transition between capitalism and socialism, Carmen spent her childhood in Miami, Albuquerque, Topeka, and Houston. She received BA and MSSW at UT Austin and worked as a therapist for abused children and families. After returning to the same university for law school, Carmen practiced in Texas, Wisconsin, and Washington in the areas of civil rights and family law. She studied, practiced and taught Buddhism for 22 years. Now retired from law and back in Texas, Carmen is a live-in abuela to three wonderful girls. She has been involved in the Work That Reconnects for three years.
P.S. Carmen believes that humor is important for facing the future.

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