World Environment Day this year is focused on plastic pollution and the need to reduce, reuse and recycle our plastic waste globally. Today we produce nearly 400 million tonnes of plastic every year, worldwide.
Although official World Environment Day 2023 is focused on plastic pollution with both a rough attempt at encouraging systemic change, and continuing the common institutional approach to the environment of ‘inspiring’ change amongst individuals, I have a different idea.
Why not, on this World Environment Day, in the face of the unrealistic notion of individual power, celebrate the work and role of communities in mitigating and adapting to the climate and ecological crisis? And at the same time, start asking: how can our local communities be more empowered to steward our environment?
Whilst it seems that darkness is all around for the future of our environment, there is a flame of hope burning on our doorsteps, in our streets and at the centre of our cities, towns and villages. Our communities! That is where real, effective and hard work is being done to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and to support nature recovery.
Birmingham’s CIVIC SQUARE project
In Birmingham a brilliant organisation, which has invested in people and making change happen in neighbourhoods, is charging ahead in enabling a social and ecological transition. CIVIC SQUARE, co-founded by the charismatic and incredibly energetic Imandeep Kaur, has been working out ways to channel resources, power and attention into local neighbourhoods to mitigate climate change while also boosting communities. These communities are so often neglected by mainstream politics outside of elections.
They have worked on projects including planning for neighbourhood scale retro-fitting of homes, and developing social infrastructure for communities to be strengthened. Alongside this, they emphasize a systems-thinking approach particularly rooted in the increasingly influential Doughnut Economics framework developed by former Oxfam economist, Kate Raworth. They have sought to take such an approach into the heart of communities and ensure it is accessible to all as a means of responding and transitioning in the face of a plethora of crises; council budget cuts, asset-stripping, dilapidated infrastructure, and the climate crisis. Many often argue, especially in Westminster politics, that communities could not care less about the environment when they are facing the cost-of-living crisis and reduced standards of living, but CIVIC SQUARE has shown that that narrative simply suits politics not the reality for communities.
It has not been an easy ride for CIVIC SQUARE. They are a small organisation, dependent on grant funding which can be sporadic, based on rigid formulas and approaches, and short-term. In spite of this, they have not been silenced and continue to develop their work in empowering neighbourhoods, which is vital for our environment.
Closer to home for the West of England, is Burford. A small town with around just 2,500 residents and a predominantly older population. But gradually an enthusiastic and dedicated community has created the Burford Environmental Action Group that has championed Burford’s environment, and role in mitigating climate change. The group, colloquially known as Beagles, a rather Cotswoldian name, has gone from strength to strength, perhaps embodying the radical courage seen in Burford’s history, notably the three levellers shot in the 1600s outside St John the Baptist, Burford’s church.
The group has supported the Burfordian community to take a more active approach to nature and climate change. Numerous repair cafes have taken place, mainly in Warwick Hall (the church hall in Burford), alongside supporting wider environmental initiatives in the town such as tree planting, allotments and litter-picking. While some of these activities appear merely window-dressing in comparison to the real need for substantial action globally for our environment, including on plastic pollution, it is at the community level that actual relationships are developed, and awareness of the need to steward our environment is communicated.
Beagles has very much taken up this responsibility. It held an Eco Day in March this year, which I should disclose I did speak at, on the need to put efficient, effective and reliable public transport first before a dependency on resource-heavy private electric cars (sorry Elon). Here, Beagles gathered the town together through a series of interesting talks from farmer Ian Wilkinson from FarmED, to Ashley Smith from well-known Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (more on that shortly). There were also stalls from various organisations and groups, including bike repair station and an environmentally-related book stall. Beagles has been great at getting the message out there, that it is in our local communities that we need to really start building momentum for seeking action for our environment.
Finally, Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP), as mentioned above, have been a hugely influential local organisation in the Cotswolds, that has built community momentum and enthusiasm for seeking real change for our local rivers.
Led by Ashley Smith and Peter Hammond, they have worked tirelessly to bring to the attention of politicians, the media and the public, the horrendous, continuing sewage pollution of Cotswold rivers by water companies, primarily Thames Water. They have been extremely innovative and sophisticated in their work, including using algorithms to examine sewage dumping data from Thames Water, often finding more illegal or wrongful dumpings than the Environment Agency (EA). Their work and effort itself, has highlighted the shocking inadequacy of water regulations and regulating agencies, like the EA and Ofwat (Water Services Regulation Authority) for water and its ecosystems. They have mobilised local political parties, including Labour, and the Liberal Democrats to seek action, and given evidence to Parliament. No doubt their organising, campaigning and research will become a case study or text-book example for future environmental campaigns, especially at a local level.
Mobilise local communities
All of these examples show the incredible energy and strength that local communities can have in organising for our environment, and they should be celebrated. But they also uncover the separate failure of centralised institutions and politics to either support or take action themselves. It points to a need for a real change in power dynamics and the need for the mobilisation of resources towards local communities, whether through greater devolution for more areas (particularly in England) or to a greater, less tightly controlled distribution of financial resources to local communities. We need to let people, who know what they want and need in order to mitigate and adapt to the climate and ecological crises, have the means to act as they see fit. Tackling inequalities and taking action on climate change and nature recovery is as much about empowering local communities across the world, as it is about regulating and restricting the worst excesses of those at the top.
So to honour World Environment Day, let’s mobilise your community, be it family, street or town, to get the resources they need to steward our environment!