Changing narratives – From innovation and sustainability to autonomy and resilience

Changing narratives needs cooperation, ecological sensitivity, resilience and collective practices. Economic degrowth
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by Amerissa Giannouli,
Project Manager,
inspirer of STEP Forward

An ecosystem is a community of living organisms and nonliving things interacting together in a way that the evolution of the one affects the other. In this sense, everything on this planet is interrelated and interconnected. In contrast to the typical hierarchical structure where an ecosystem is presented as an ecological pyramid that distinguishes between decomposers, producers and consumers according to their feeding habits and energy, ecosystems could be better explained as a complex network of biotic and abiotic elements. According to Social Ecology principles, diverse ecosystems tend to be stronger and more resilient when dealing with a systemic crisis. Considering the ecosystems as non-hierarchical, more symbiotic rather antagonistic and more diverse, constitutes a new understanding of how things in nature work and interact. This understanding of how things work in nature can be applied and adopted to the way our social communities might be organised in order to be more resilient and secured from crises (economic, environmental, social, political, etc.). In this article, a few thoughts about the mainstream policies proposed to address the climate crisis are unfolded. These thoughts are followed by experiences from Greek initiatives that are based on more symbiotic and collaborative principles. Such Greek practices could be further explored, analysed and integrated in policies dealing with the socio-ecological and economic challenges of our times. 

Many politicians and business representatives perceive and characterise the climate crisis as a new opportunity for growth. This is evident in the basic conceptualisation of the recent European Green Deal. Concerns about the methods and policy proposals included in the European Green Deal have been already discussed in another article (ie. GDP limitations, Jevons paradox). Statements about how a crisis can be used as an opportunity were also made during the years of the European economic crisis and it was more explicitly stated in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine a few years back. The book deals with the exploitation of national crises (natural and manmade) to establish socially questionable and controversial policies, while people are unable to resist. Nowadays, what is communicated by the different climate policies is the need for all regions and countries to make a “very detailed and specific” transition towards sustainability. Sustainability is a very broad concept that can be understood differently according to political and economic interests. Sustainability approaches are being divided according to their technocratic and ecocentric character. By looking at the policy descriptions proposed, nature is considered to be a set of goods and services. According to the mainstream environmental policies, natural capital needs to be safeguarded in order to meet the needs of the present generations and secure the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Such perceptions about nature are related to “weak sustainability” which may help us to assume that the policy interventions proposed are also “weak”.  

The most crucial point raised in this article is the issue of climate debt. Although we need to change the way we extract resources, produce and consume in a more environmentally sustainable manner, we also need to rethink the way we perceive nature and ecological problems. If we wish to make a transition towards a circular economy using smart innovative technologies, we need to consider that there are countries that will need to pay more costs in order to make such transitions. The question is who will pay and how these costs will be paid in order to be a just transition for all. Policy makers say that there are mechanisms to achieve a “just transition for all”. Indeed, economists have worked years to build different financial mechanisms to draw money out of nothing. However, at least two things are missing from the equation.

  1. Such transitions imply change in the core production and consumption patterns of a country. Even if we are to move towards more ecological production and consumption patterns, it is still unfair that a few “experts” have pre-decided how this is going to happen. Implementing strategies that put at risk the cultural diversity of places might cause more problems than solving the existing ones, especially when this “transition” targets regions and places with historically small ecological footprint. Normally, the economic mechanisms such as taxes and subsidies (economic incentives) give signals to business owners to produce specific types of products. However, if we recall the Common Agricultural Policy, such incentives resulted in monoculture that had catastrophic results for the production and the natural environment. What if such interventions result in the same problematic direction? Who would guarantee that traditional sustainable practices will be secured and business owners and producers will not follow a more unsustainable and catastrophic path? Do we have the democratic mechanisms that allow the general public to get involved in the decision making process? Are these working properly, if at all?
  2. These calculated costs should be related to the historical aspects of the western economic development that was achieved at the expense of others within and beyond Europe. If we also consider the strong economic relations between European and non-European countries (eg. USA, China) who are some of the greatest polluters in the world, expecting for Europe to lead and give “the good example” to others will not be enough to address the climate crisis. At least not in the near future that we urgently need to keep the earth temperature low. Maybe we need to question not just the type of international trade relations but also their level. 

These lead to more questions. Who are exactly the main polluters? Should we talk about countries or about specific businesses, industries and practices that are very much well-known? It is common knowledge that international trade and big international corporations produce a lot of carbon emissions and wastes. They use large scale unsustainable extraction, production and transportation methods causing environmental problems and extending social inequalities (environmental injustice, environmental migration, land grabbing, restricted access to water etc). Nevertheless, the main proposals for climate change mitigation focus on smart and innovative green technologies without dealing with the aforementioned issues. Proposals about producing and consuming local or limiting international trade are not well promoted. This is expected. International trade and big corporations are seemingly very beneficial for the economy of the countries where these corporations are related to. Growth will feed the poor and provide jobs to the unemployed. Growth can save nature as well! It will be “inconvenient” for the “economy”, if communities and households become more autonomous. Who else is going to buy all the things that maintain our modern lifestyles and satisfy our “superficial needs”? 

Sadly, it is due to the same old good “growth”, regardless of its new colours and fancy adjectives,  that we are in this ecological mess. The gap between rich and poor is present. There are still many unemployed and underpaid people in the world lacking the provision of basic social services and unable to cover their basic needs. 

Are there any alternatives? 

  • Let’s talk about autonomy. What does this mean? Local communities and households should be empowered and equipped with tools and knowledge to self-organise themselves. Starting from the very small things, schools may teach young people how to grow and cook their own food. This may be accompanied with community gardens and assistance from the third sector (social businesses, NGOs, non-formal educational centers). Furthermore, communities may produce and use their own clean energy with small scale technologies (eg. energy communities). Using renewables is not a bad thing per se. On the contrary, overexploitation and installation of immense technological structures to places that should be protected (eg. Natura 2000 areas) is. 
  • Let’s talk about democracy. Democracy is not about accepting and being happy on what others are proposing. It is not only about gaining social acceptance. Democracy is about co-creating policies. The citizens are not simply followers, they are drivers for change, they are makers. The idea is related to the idea of autonomy that requires society to create new institutions such as community councils and neighborhood assemblies. Of course, this implies that political power will need to be decentralised and the citizens must learn how to act as citizens, knowing their rights and their responsibilities, the main processes that they need to follow in a democratic community, as well as knowing how they can alter these processes. In fact, such processes will need to be open and inclusive. Education needs to teach us how to be citizens, instead of “greener” consumers (the new trend of our times). 

Are there any examples of practices that promote autonomy and democracy in Greece respecting the natural environment?

  • Urban community gardens & seeds banks 

Urban gardens are areas of land located within the city and cultivated collectively by the inhabitants. Commonly, such areas are provided by the municipalities mainly to socio-economically vulnerable people. There have been grassroots initiatives which have created urban vegetable gardens without the administrative presence of the municipalities. Such gardens are open and accessible to all who are interested in cultivating the land. They are an opportunity for contact with nature but also for socialization, with psychological and physical benefits. Small urban vegetable gardens could be used in schools as a method of learning to cultivate and enhancing children’s participation in the community, given the spirit of cooperation and participation they create. 

Speaking about food security, seed banks aim to preserve the seeds so that they can be used in the future. They normally include seeds from farmers, informal producer groups, organizations and individuals. Furthermore, they safeguard the germination and purity of the seeds from genetic mutations, helping to preserve traditional varieties. Seed banks are part of a movement that opposes the privatization of seeds by multinational corporations. 

Τhe “Neighborhood Initiative of Alexandros Svolos” in the “Pocket Park” in Thessaloniki, a couple of years ago, began the construction of an urban community garden. It was a great opportunity for young students to come together, learn, experiment and participate in the process of gardening. The seeds that were used were from the “Peliti community” that collects, preserves and shares traditional seed varieties.

  • Community composting 

“Compost” is the natural fertilizer produced by the decomposition of organic materials such as leaves, fruit residues, vegetables, coffee, etc. Community composting refers to the collective composting of such organic materials by the community with the aim of their decomposition and fertilizer production, which can later be used for local crops, eg. the community gardens. It is an effective way of managing household organic waste by reducing waste. The participatory feature of community composting lies in the community awareness and participation of citizens in the collective and conscious effort of recycling waste. Citizens learn to manage their waste while protecting the environment of their community. Community composting is an initiative by the “RE: THINK PROJECT” which was first applied in Kalamata. RE: THINK PROJECT team manages and supervises the Community Composting Network.

  • Makerspaces & repair cafes 

Makerspaces involve collaborative design and product development using free and open source software. The mentality of sharing technology and knowledge lies in the values of community creators who network, exchange knowledge and skills. Such spaces may be based on the idea of recycling and reuse materials. Everyone can become a creator, experiment and make products for commercial or non-commercial purposes. The essence of this practice is the community that comes with it, collaborative and non-antagonistic work. “Tzoumakers” (Kalentzi village, Achaea) is such an “open lab for communities to cooperatively design and manufacture tools for small-scale agricultural production”. The people of the community take technology in their own hands according to their needs. 

Another way to support community building and environmental practices is having a “Repair cafe” in your neighbourhood. These are places where you can bring various items such as toys, electronic devices, small furniture, various decorations, etc that need repair. Volunteers help you and show you how you can fix it by accompanying the whole process with… coffee. You can donate the item or device that you do not need and, once repaired, it will be given to people or organizations that need it. Apart from the obvious ecological benefits, people use this as an opportunity to come together and socialise. The first repair café in Greece was created by the social cooperative “Recycle at the source” in Aktaio, Patras and it is part of the Global Repair Cafe Community.

  • Energy communities

At a certain point, we will need to turn to renewable energy solutions instead of burning fossil fuels. A good solution that may involve a smaller scale of renewable energy solutions is creating energy communities. According to the Greek law 4513/2018, an “Energy Community is a cooperative aiming to promote the social and solidarity economy and innovation in the energy sector, to address energy poverty and to promote sustainable energy production, storage, energy management, self-consumption, distribution and energy supply, as well as to enhance energy self-sufficiency and security”. The active participation of citizens, local government and small and medium-sized enterprises in energy production is an important step towards energy democracy, ensuring that energy transition takes place in terms of social justice where the society has an active and not a passive role. Similar to the previous examples and good practices, the essence of this initiative is to bring citizens together while becoming more energy autonomous. The Energy Cooperative Company of Karditsa is the first organized effort at country level for the exploitation of biomass and especially of agro-biomass. Schools or universities could benefit from such initiatives if they manage to collaborate together and at the same time offer educational experiences for the students. 

  • Eco-communities

Eco-communities (or ecovillages depending on the population size) are characterized by alternative forms of social and economic organization being in harmony with the natural environment. Members of eco-communities support nutritional and energy autonomy by organizing daily activities and deciding collectively and collaboratively. They actively participate in the shaping, development and maintenance of the ecological and social life. They experiment with permaculture practices, depending on local production and consumption of goods, reducing over-consumption of goods and waste of natural resources. The idea is to take decisions collectively by applying processes such as councils and assemblies with strong democratic and participatory character. Although there are many initiatives in Greece that explore this possibility of co-living, Skala ecovillage (Central Macedonia) might be the only complete Greek example. It is also a member of the Global Ecovillages Network.

  • Collectives & cooperatives 

A collective – cooperative is a set of people who work together with no hierarchical relationship between them and there are no employees or owners. Decisions are made collectively and all members contribute to its operation as much as they can. The income covers the financial contributions of the members and their work, as well as any additional operating expenses. The profits are not shared but are used to develop social activities and support the aims of the collective – cooperative, which are usually associated with social and environmental purposes. There are collectives-cooperatives of work, production, consumption, service, solidarity, etc. They are part of the social and solidarity economy. The first social consumer cooperative grocery in Thessaloniki is Bios Coop. The products that Bios Coop sells are produced within the region in ways that are socially and environmentally responsible. For example, they get products directly from agricultural cooperatives and small production units (no intermediates) which makes them offer high quality local products at affordable prices. 

One big issue about economic policies and political decisions is how to manage to satisfy the big corporations and industries and, at the same time, offer some short of social services to the rest of the people. There will always be conflicted interests within this socio-economic system. Industries’ owners are looking to employ workers at the lowest wage possible, while workers want to earn as much money as possible. It is a matter of political will which side will be benefited more than the other. Usually, politicians (consulted by fellow economists) react by saying that it is needed to keep the industry and business owners happy, otherwise they will “close” and leave so many people unemployed. This is why the environmental policies are so modest when they come to business owners and environmental responsibilities. Let’s think about how the big international corporations normally work. Usually, the owners are a number of people that own stock market shares. It is very common that they do not have anything to do with the production process of the goods. Indeed, the workers are the main creators and owners of the produced product. A great example to understand this is the Greek case of BIO.ME. BIO.ME. is a self-managed factory in Thessaloniki. It is considered to be the first initiative in Greece where workers self-manage an industrial unit in the country. Workers’ values can be seen from the way they work, they collaborate and they produce products that are ecologically sustainable.

Are these ideas feasible? 

These ideas, apart from the need of institutional support in order to be established (e.i. a generally more supportive framework towards similar to the aforementioned initiatives), imply also something else. The people of each community should have opportunities to come together to meet and talk regularly. Especially in the case of urban areas, municipalities can play an essential role towards this direction. How difficult would it be to organise regular events for the general public to come together and talk in a more relaxed format on issues that matter to them? Every year, money is spent on fancy meetings with officials, cultural events and celebrations, usually with no real human contact and exchange. Offering space, conceptually and literally, to organise interactive activities with the help of the community itself (eg. volunteers or NGO representatives) do not seem to be that costly. Plus, the public relations of the Mayor will be strongly benefited. And the best thing is that the issues discussed could be anything, not just environmental issues. By this way, you can mobilise citizens to participate and have, at least, more informed people in your community. It is the power of networking and communication within and beyond the community that will lead to change and building on more favorable institutional structures and legal frameworks.

Taking the example of BIOME, it was neither easy nor simple to be established and continue as a self-organised factory. The challenges were legal but also structural, including personal disagreements and insecurities. These challenges are still present but they manage to teach the members of the initiative how to build up on these failures and continue stronger, developing trust on the members, the process but also gaining external supporters from the general public.

In environmental education, the 7Rs (used to be 3 and then 5) are regulargy turned up into discussions. It is easy to explain how the 6Rs (refuse, reuse and repair, recycle, rot, repurpose, reduce) could be realised. “Rethinking” the way we perceive our relationships between us and between us and nature will always be the hardest part to explain. 

Any crisis is an opportunity. For some, it will be an opportunity to profit and hide the roots of the problem and divert the public’s attention towards other things. For others, it will be an opportunity to evaluate and redefine the values and social structures required to be more resilient against future crises. At the end of the day, it is a political question, not a matter of how “smart” you are. 

Source for the Greek practices: 

*This piece is a personal reflection of the author after the implementation of a series of online meetings with a group of participants from Greece on socio-ecological transformation.