Technology, Community, and Sustainability

Community is a positive value in any transformational path towards sustainability. It stands out in opposition to individualism and to the sense of oneself as an isolated ego. Technology is painted in my book as one of the root causes of unsustainability because it tends to create an addiction to finding technological solutions to everything in the world—from self satisfaction to solving the global warming challenge. But both of these concepts can work as effective teammates towards winning sustainability if the processes by which technology is created and selected for application move from isolated expert-driven choices toward community-based decision processes.

Community choice doesn’t guarantee success or that the outcome is right, but it does bring the ultimate “consumer” of the technology closer to those making the decisions. It is interesting to me that President-elect Obama seems to be over-stressing the expert path in selecting his Cabinet and advisors, for example, putting a Nobelist in charge of the Energy Department. I am not suggesting that it is not a welcome change to see competent experts like Stephen Chu in key positions, only that more reliance on experts takes the processes further from the communities they serve. The critical attribute is competence, not necessarily technical expertise.

Community-based governance ideas are found in many places, but infrequently when it comes to technical decisions. The Loka Institute has for many years promoted the idea of community as a focus for making policy with this as their vision:

To kindle a vibrant popular movement for community-driven policies in research, science, and technology that will advance democracy, social justice, and ecological sustainability at every level - from neighborhoods to nations.

The immediacy of climate change impacts tend to narrow the focus to the environmental world. Loka, and others, argue that science and technology affect far more that the environment, reaching into all the domains that must be healthy and well-behaved to produce flourishing, as I claim is the primary manifestation of sustainability. Again, their words tell the story better than I can by paraphrase.

In this high-stakes century, community-initiated and community-directed policies for research and technology are among the most powerful new tools available to nurture the health of families, communities, and the local ecologies they depend upon. Families and neighborhoods under the most stress stand to gain the most from such social change. Research and technology policies are now primarily driven by the competitive needs of corporations and militaries - not by collaborative community efforts to address our most pressing social and environmental problems. Community-driven policies will shift public attention and financial resources from that top-down approach to grassroots priorities. They will foster far more democratic collaborations that empower communities both to address their own urgent local needs and to champion the broad public interest in national and international debates about the design and use of advanced new technologies. This social change is critical because technological advances are happening so rapidly and are having such dramatic impacts on every facet of human culture - from the engineering of food and electronic diversions from family relationships to the increasing threat that weapons of mass destruction could become widely available.